Ex-Flint manager deflects blame for lead crisis to state, feds

Darnell Earley was the city's emergency manager when it switched its water source, making the city's water unsafe. The decision to switch was made during the previous manager's administration. 

Zack Wittman/The Flint via AP/ File
Darnell Earley, a former emergency manager for Flint, Michigan at the time it switched its water source in 2014, appears at a news conference, Sept. 2013. Mr. Earley plans to testify in Congress on Tuesday that water experts did not warn him that lead had entered the city's water system.

The emergency manager in charge of finances for Flint, Mich., when the city switched its water source in 2014, exposing thousands of children to lead, plans to tell Congress he was "totally dependent" on experts who did not tell him how unsafe the water was.

Darnell Earley was "grossly misled" by officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and US Environmental Protection Agency, he will testify Tuesday before the before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. 

Flint's money-saving decision to switch to improperly treated water from the Flint River in April 2014, instead of using Detroit's water system, has been blamed for the ongoing crisis that left residents' water unsafe to drink. Though the water source has been switched back to the Detroit system, the water is still unsafe to drink. For months, the city of just under 100,000 people, 40 percent of whom are below the poverty line, has had to relied on bottled water.

After finding coliform bacteria in the water, officials advised residents to boil their water. In October 2015, Virginia Tech researchers found dangerous levels of lead in the water, prompting national outrage.

"At absolutely no time during these boil-water advisories were the issues of corrosion control or lead leaching brought to my attention," Mr. Earley said. 

Although the water-source switch took place during Earley's administration, the decision to do so was approved by the Flint City Council months before he took office. The emergency manager at that time was Edward Kurtz. 

"It would have been unreasonable ... to reject [experts'] guidance and attempt to make independent rulings on a highly sophisticated and scientific subject matter," he plans to tell the House committee, according to a copy of his testimony obtained by the Associated Press.

Two hearings are scheduled this week, as Congress tries to determine accountability for the crisis. Many people have called for the resignation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who campaigned on the promise to use business principles to turn around cities in financial crisis, like Flint. Governor Snyder is also scheduled to appear in Congress Tuesday, alongside EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. 

Under Michigan law, state government can appoint emergency managers to turn around cities' finances. Snyder appointed five managers to Flint since 2011; Earley served from September 2013 to January 2015.

Michigan Democrats have since proposed a bill to stop governors from appointing emergency managers, amid critiques of the "government as business" models that some say take important decisions out of the community's hands.

The law "takes away the natural checks and balances" of local government, former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling said, blaming the administration for "choosing low cost over human consequences."

Using private business strategies to run governments has its limits, University of California-San Diego professor Thad Kousser told the Monitor in January.

"The private marketplace works because of competition, but governments often have monopoly," Professor Kousser said in an inteview. "When Volkswagen screws up, you can buy a Ford. But when lead starts coming out of your tap, you can’t just turn on another tap."

Utah Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House's Oversight committee, said "it is almost unbelievable how many bad decisions were made" to create Flint's water crisis. It "cannot ever happen again," he wrote in an opening statement for Tuesday's hearing. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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