At water-crisis hearing, what Flint residents hear is broken government

US House members on Thursday brought in Michigan Governor Snyder and EPA chief McCarthy to testify. Sniping ensued, to the dismay of Flint residents who are seeking solutions.  

Andrew Harnik/AP
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder drinks water as he testifies in Washington Thursday at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the high levels of lead found in many residents' tap water in Flint, Mich.

If members of Congress wonder why their approval rating is at 14 percent, they need only have peeked into the House oversight committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water-crisis on Thursday.

It was their third hearing this year to probe the lead-poisoned water in Flint, and this time, the two people at the top of the responsibility chain testified – Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, and the Obama administration’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy.

The appearance of the top guns, however, was just too tempting for lawmakers. It quickly devolved into a blame game with Democrats demanding that Governor Snyder resign and Republicans demanding the same of Ms. McCarthy. The two witnesses also lobbed accusations at each other.

Residents of Flint, who lined the hallway to get into the hearing, saw through the show.

“It’s much ado about nothing. A lot of posturing, finger-pointing, denial of responsibility. I had expected more, but I’m just very disappointed and saddened,” said Laura MacIntyre, a local activist and mother of 10-year-old twins, who sat quietly next to her, headphones on and connected to their electronic devices.

It’s not that a constructive approach is completely missing in action. The first House hearing on Flint in February was less partisan in tone. Even on Thursday, ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland thanked Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah for holding three hearings. And senators are working on a bipartisan bill to provide $220 million to fix and replace pipes in Flint and other cities.

But the activist, Ms. MacIntyre, who flew to Washington with her union, said Flint’s water crisis has “utterly broken” her trust in the functioning of government – at all levels – and that residents have had no choice but to take things into their own hands. “We’re looking into citizens replacing the [water] lines ourselves because nothing is getting done and nobody is helping us.”

MacIntyre and her family are still drinking bottled water and still bathing with bottled water. They started doing that in the spring of 2014, when she sensed something was wrong with the water.

In April of that year, the city of Flint, under a governor-appointed emergency city manager, switched its water source from the Detroit River to the Flint River in order to save money. The water caused pipes to corrode and leach lead into the system.

At the hearing, the governor said he first learned that the city’s water was contaminated on Oct. 1, 2015. He then directed the city to switch back to the Detroit water supply and began distributing water filters and testing residents, especially children.

The governor accepted that the main blame lies with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, which assured him and others that the water was safe, when it wasn’t. But he also said the crisis was the result of “a failure of government at all levels.”

Several times he told lawmakers “I kick myself every day” over what questions he could have asked or what more he could have done.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Desiree Duell, at a break in the hearing. “Governor Snyder is making it seem like the response has been effective, and it’s been extremely ineffective.” She said that it’s activists such as herself who are doing the work, “and we’re unpaid.”

Ms. Duell, wearing a black watchcap with “Flint” across the front, said she’s organizing moms, helping get Spanish-language literature out, and distributing water.

Under federal law, it’s the state’s responsibility to enforce water quality standards, though the EPA plays an oversight role. At the hearing, EPA director McCarthy said the state stonewalled her office. She was asked repeatedly whether she would have fired a regional EPA official who resigned over the issue, but avoided the question.

“I will take responsibility for not pushing hard enough, but I will not take responsibility for causing this problem,” she said.

Neither Snyder nor McCarthy plan to resign, but several Flint residents said they want them both out – and they want a criminal investigation.

“No one’s going to jail,” said Arthur Woodson, another Flint activist who wants both of the witnesses to resign. Asked what the resignations would accomplish, he said, “you would have fresh eyes, and people would probably work together. It would be bipartisan instead of people pointing fingers at each other.”

As things went Thursday, “It’s the state’s fault, no, it’s his fault, no it’s her fault, no, it’s the dog’s fault,” Mr. Woodson said.

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