As Grilling Over Flint Water Begins, Partisan Divisions Surface


From left, Joel Beauvais of the federal Environmental Protection Agency; Keith Creagh of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality; Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech; and LeeAnne Walters, a Flint resident, were sworn in to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday.

Molly Riley/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The water crisis in Flint, Mich., threatened Wednesday to derail the first major federal energy bill in nearly a decade while stirring partisan passions in both the Senate and the House, where members of an oversight committee grilled officials from Michigan and the federal Environmental Protection Agency over their flawed response.

“I don’t care whether it’s the E.P.A., whether it’s local, whether it’s the state,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “I want everybody who’s responsible for this fiasco to be held accountable.”

Over several hours of tense questioning, the committee sought to stitch together the chain of events that led to the water in Flint being contaminated with high levels of lead, particularly the failure to add a chemical to the water that would have prevented the city’s aging pipes from corroding and leaching lead.

Republicans, including Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, the chairman of the committee, cast blame on the E.P.A., while Democrats focused on the role of an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, to oversee the city, and on the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

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Overview of Flint’s Water Crisis

Months after the city of Flint, Mich., switched from a Detroit water supply to one from the Flint River, contaminants have sickened people. Residents have filed lawsuits, and the governor has apologized.

By TURNER COWLES on Publish Date January 20, 2016.

Photo by Jake May/The Flint Journal, via Associated Press.

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Mr. Chaffetz said he expected the E.P.A. by the end of the week, to turn over pertinent emails to and from Susan Hedman, the agency’s former director for the region that includes Michigan. She resigned last week.

Much of the hearing focused on concerns about the lead level in Flint’s water that were raised early last year by an E.P.A. official who tested water samples there, and on why the E.P.A. did not quickly insist then that officials take measures to control corrosion in the Flint water system.

As House members questioned Michigan officials, Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, worked feverishly to save a sweeping bipartisan energy bill that Democrats have threatened to derail if $600 million in additional federal aid to Michigan to help clean up the contaminated water is not included in the measure.

But many Republicans said they would not support the bill, which is nearing a final vote in the Senate, if it included the money for the Flint water crisis.

“It’s a huge earmark,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2-ranking Republican. “I think it’s not something I could support. Flint doesn’t have anything to do with the energy bill.”

This week, the contours of a deal were formed, between Ms. Murkowski and Democrats, to pay for aid to Flint through a complex funding structure that may have also benefited Sebring, Ohio, where another lead crisis is emerging. But the proposal was found to have tax code implications, Republicans said, that would have prevented the bill from moving forward.

“We are still looking for an offset and still trying to help,” Ms. Murkowski said Wednesday, noting that voting down the entire energy bill would ensure that no additional help went to Flint.

Many Republicans said it would be hard to find a solution that would not divide their members. “Flint is a tough issue,” said Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia. “My heart goes out to the people there but if you took every failure of local government and brought it to the federal government to fix,” it would be untenable, he said.

Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, citing the Republicans’ general opposition to federal funding for Flint on Tuesday, expressed skepticism that an agreement could be reached. “I’m wondering what’s really going on,” she said.

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Events That Led to Flint’s Water Crisis

Timeline of the critical moments leading to the public health emergency.

OPEN Timeline

The House hearing was one of several Mr. Chaffetz has convened at Democrats’ request, but many of them are angry that the committee did not invite Mr. Snyder to testify.

Department of Environmental Quality and E.P.A. officials sought to blame each other, but some of the harshest testimony came from LeeAnne Walters, a former Flint resident whose tap water was found to have extremely high lead levels starting early in 2015, and Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor to whom she appealed for help after her concerns were “dismissed,” as she put it, by city and state employees.

Mr. Edwards testified that the E.P.A. was “aiding and abetting” the Department of Environmental Quality’s “cover-up” of the problem. Of the E.P.A., he added, “The crying shame here is when they knew there was a problem, they should have told the public, they should have told the M.D.E.Q., they should have told the experts, and they should have been out there warning people like Ms. Walters.”

Democrats on the oversight committee, joined by Mr. Chaffetz, also sought the testimony of Darnell Earley, the former emergency manager in Flint, a Snyder appointee who approved the switch to water from the Flint River to save money. The committee issued Mr. Earley a subpoena late Tuesday, according to a member of its staff. But his lawyer, A. Scott Bolden, said in an email Tuesday night that Mr. Earley would be unable to appear before the committee.

Mr. Chaffetz said the committee would make a second attempt to subpoena Mr. Earley, adding, “We are calling on the U.S. marshals to hunt him down.”

The committee also was issuing a subpoena for Ms. Hedman, the E.P.A. official who was in charge of Michigan until her resignation last month, Mr. Chaffetz said.

Mr. Snyder’s office announced on Tuesday that Mr. Earley would resign from his current job as the emergency manager for the Detroit school system at the end of the month.

Miguel Del Toral, an Environmental Protection Agency employee who tried unsuccessfully to raise concerns about Flint’s water after seeing Ms. Walters’s test results early last year, was also called to testify.

But a spokeswoman for the agency, Monica Lee, said Mr. Del Toral would not be appearing before the committee.

Officials at the agency have said that they pressed Michigan regulators to take more decisive action after Mr. Del Toral brought his concerns about Flint’s water to their attention. But it was not until last month that the agency issued an emergency order and assumed oversight of lead testing in Flint.

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