The first of this week's congressional hearings examining the water crisis in Flint, Michigan heard testimony on Tuesday from top local officials who continued to deny any responsibility for the crisis — and in doing so, shed further light on how they created and perpetuated one of the worst public health crises in recent memory.
The hearing exposed a particularly damning memo from a regional EPA official, Debbie Baltazar, who wrote in September 2015, "I'm not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for."
Baltazar argued in that memo that the EPA should not issue federal funds to help the community suffering from what was already clearly a catastrophic level of lead poisoning from the city's water. The EPA should withhold those funds specifically earmarked to help with water contamination because, Baltazar stated, she felt the city had mismanaged its money in the past.
"Offering this kind of assistance to Flint may not send a good message to all the cities that properly manage their water and sewer fees," Baltazar concluded.
"Records show that people at the EPA knew in early 2015 that Flint’s water had dangerously high lead levels," the Hill reported. "But it did not take formal action, beyond pushing Michigan officials to do something, until January 2016."
The committee quizzed Susan Hedman, the former regional EPA head, about remarks from three former interns in her office, who testified earlier that they had been intimidated and told not to talk publicly about the Flint water crisis. She denied that there was any evidence to support the allegations.
Marc Edwards, the environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech who first broke news of the public health disaster, is the newly appointed head of the Flint Water Interagency Coordination Committee and offered scathing condemnation at the hearing about the EPA's reaction to the Flint crisis, characterizing the agency as "unremorseful for their role in causing this man-made disaster... and completely unrepentant and unable to learn from their mistakes."
"Ms. Hedman said the EPA had nothing to do with creating Flint," Edwards argued. "The EPA had everything to do with creating Flint."
VaTech's Marc Edwards blasting EPA at #FlintWaterCrisis hearing: “I guess being a government agency means never having to say you’re sorry.”— Gongwer News Service (@GongwerMichigan) March 15, 2016
Hedman told the committee that she had resigned from her position because of "false allegations" about her role in the crisis, choking up as she claimed she never stopped thinking about the people of Flint, ABC reported.
Former emergency manager Darnell Earley also testified on Tuesday, offering comments that seemed to reveal a disastrous lack of concern when evidence was mounting about the public health fiasco.
Earley blamed state and city officials for his catastrophic decision to switch the city's water source, acknowledged that he never met with any Flint residents in person about their concerns regarding the water, attempted to argue that General Motors machinery's corrosion after the switch "did not correlate" to the water being bad for human consumption, and invoked attorney-client privilege and refused to answer when asked if he directed his lawyer to not respond to the hearing committee's subpoena.
It's apparently a popular excuse: the Detroit Free Press also reported Tuesday on the attempt of state officials to evade Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by writing "attorney-client privilege" on top of emails they don't wish to be made public—but "wishing it doesn't make it so," the newspaper observed.
During the congressional hearing, the committee was reminded that after making the water source switch that created Flint's public health crisis, Earley received a $44,000 raise and a promotion from Governor Snyder.
In a prepared statement, Earley told the committee that he felt "unjustly persecuted."
On Earley's raises: "It looks like the Governor was pleased with your performance in Flint." Best line of the hearing so far.— emptywheel (@emptywheel) March 15, 2016
Congresswoman Norton slams Darnell Earley for ignoring residents' complaints about losing hair, smelly & discolored water. #FlintWaterCrisis— Motor City Muckraker (@MCmuckraker) March 15, 2016
#FlintWater Snyder chose to replace democratically elected officials with his handpicked agents. All responsibility start & end with him.— Sandra Smith (@Coco_Wms) March 15, 2016
Oversight hearing makes it clear: Michigan emergency manager law has to go.#FlintWaterCrisis— Food & Water Watch (@foodandwater) March 15, 2016
Meanwhile, in Michigan news also broke Tuesday that Governor Snyder was using a loophole in state law to reallocate taxpayer funds to pay for his own legal defense for his role in the public health crisis.
"Snyder is attempting to force the taxpayers of Michigan, including the people of Flint, to pay his legal defense for his failure in Flint," said Lonnie Scott, executive director of the local government watchdog Progress Michigan. "That is the equivalent of an $800,000 deposit into Snyder’s personal checking account. Snyder claims he is being defended in his official capacity as governor, but I think it’s safe to say that any criminal activity is not one of the duties required of the governor of our state."
Governor Snyder is to testify during the next congressional hearing about the crisis on Thursday.