U.S. lawmakers chastise officials at all levels over Flint crisis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers criticized environmental officials at a hearing on Wednesday for not acting sooner when they saw a report that drinking water in Flint, Michigan was polluted with dangerously high levels of lead.

“I never thought this could happen in America,” and in a state, “surrounded by fresh water of the Great Lakes,” Brenda Lawrence, a Democrat of Michigan, said at a House Oversight panel examining the water crisis in Flint, a city of 100,000.

The panel issued subpoenas to officials who did not show up to testify about water found to have lead levels that hamper brain development and cause other health problems. Thousands of children are believed to have ingested the polluted water in Flint, a mostly African American and Latino suburb near Detroit.

Lawrence asked Keith Creagh, head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, why his agency did not act on a report by a federal Environmental Protection Agency expert that showed the water was polluted. She did not get a clear answer.

“We all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis, whether it is the city the state or the federal government, we all let the citizens of Flint down,” said Creagh, who took the job last month.

Marc Edwards, a water engineer who first raised the issue of Flint’s lead contamination, told the panel the EPA broke laws by not notifying the public about a report of tainted water. “If it’s not criminal, I don’t know what is.”

EPA water official Joel Beauvais said he did not know why his agency did not tell the public.

Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, complained that the Republican-led panel did not invite Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, to testify at the hearing.

Representative Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania criticized Snyder and his hand-picked emergency managers for Flint who were responsible for switching the source of Flint’s tap water from Detroit’s system to the Flint River, a dumping area, in April 2014.

The front of the Flint Water Plant is seen in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Flint is grappling with the health and political fallout over the switch after the more corrosive river water leached lead from old pipes into the system.

“He got caught red handed poisoning the children of Flint,” Cartwright, a Democrat, said of Snyder. “There’s no two ways about it. That’s the headline here.”

A Snyder spokesman responded in an email: “It’s unfortunate when people who are not working toward a solution inject partisan politics and incendiary rhetoric into an emergency that can best be addressed by people working together.”

Snyder will ask state lawmakers in his next budget proposal to approve a $30 million water payment relief plan for Flint residents to keep their water service on and reimburse them for lead-contaminated water they cannot drink, his office said.

A busload of Flint residents traveled to Washington to attend the hearing. “We’re serious about making sure that the people responsible for this manmade disaster are held accountable,” said Bernadel Jefferson, a bishop.

Lawmakers also slammed the EPA for not sending Administrator Gina McCarthy to Flint until this week, even though the agency has known about the crisis for months. An EPA spokeswoman said the agency had formed a Flint task force last October, and has had a team there for weeks.

The head of the oversight panel, Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, a Republican, said he subpoenaed EPA’s Susan Hedman to appear at a deposition in Washington later this month.

Hedman, who announced last month that she would resign on Feb. 1, had played down the memo by the EPA’s Miguel del Toral that said tests had shown high levels of lead, telling Flint and Michigan administrators it was only a draft report.

The EPA has agreed to provide all of Hedman’s emails by the end of the week, Chaffetz said.

Chaffetz said his panel had also issued a second subpoena to Darnell Earley, who was Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager when the city switched from Detroit’s system.

A. Scott Bolden, Earley’s lawyer, said his client has not been given enough time to respond to the initial subpoena, which was served last night. Bolden said Earley is “not hiding anywhere” and will honor a subpoena issued with a reasonable response time.

Earley only implemented the plan to change the city’s water source that others had put in place before he started, Bolden said. “There was nothing put before him by the environmental folks, the water testers or anyone connected to ensuring the quality of the water to suggest in any way that a water disaster was looming.”

Political fallout over the crisis could also hold up a wide-ranging bill on energy. Democrats in the Senate threatened to block a bipartisan energy bill if it fails to include immediate aid for Flint.

Federal authorities including the FBI have started a criminal probe into the contamination.

Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit and Richard Cowan in Washington