In an ironic twist, House Republicans, who, up until a few weeks ago, wanted to see the EPA dismantled, argued this morning that what happened in Flint was due to the agency not being aggressive enough

Screen shot 2016-02-04 at 7.25.56 AM

Several people testified before the House Oversight Committee today about the poisoning of Flint’s citizens, including Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards and Flint resident Lee Anne Walters. While most of the local coverage, I suspect, will focus on Congressman Jason Chaffetz’s forceful promise early in the proceedings to have the U.S. Marshals “hunt down” former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and compel him to appear before their committee, I was more interested in the political gamesmanship taking place over the role of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in what happened.

It became clear early in the session that conservatives on the committee were attempting to put forward a narrative in which administrators within the EPA not only ignored evidence of a significant public health crisis in Flint, but went out of their way to shut down and isolate internal whistle-blower Miguel Del Toral, who had gone outside of accepted channels to share information with Lee Anne Walters about the toxicity of the water coming into her home.

Keith Creagh, the new director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), did his best to bolster this narrative. “Between February and the end of September 2015, there were multiple email exchanges and conference calls between the MDEQ and EPA (about the Lead and Copper Rule),” he said. “Yet when the parties were unable to come to consensus on its implementation in July 2015, the EPA failed to provide the legal opinion requested by the MDEQ until November 2015.” [In other words, “What happened is the fault of the EPA because they didn’t force us to do the right thing.”]

Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee, while acknowledging that the EPA could have done better, was quick to put a different spin on these interactions between the EPA and the MEDQ. “I wish, as soon as the EPA found there was problem with the water in Flint, they had shouted it from the mountaintop. Instead, they insisted the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality do its job.” He also pointed out that, early in those discussions between the two agencies, the EPA had been led to. EPA officials, according to Kildee, had been told that corrosion control procedures was in place, when, in fact, they were not.

Joel Beauvais, a deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water, told the assembled Representatives that, in the agency’s view, the rules were clear, and people within the MEDQ chose to ignore them. Flint, he said, should have implemented corrosion control in 2014, when its water source was changed to the Flint River, and not only after conducting testing for over one year. “(The) MDEQ incorrectly advised the City of Flint that corrosion control treatment was not necessary, resulting in (the) leaching of lead into the city’s drinking water,” Beauvais said. “EPA regional staff urged MDEQ to address the lack of corrosion control, but was met with resistance. The delays in implementing the actions needed to treat the drinking water and in informing the public of ongoing health risks raise very serious concerns.”

While I don’t doubt that the EPA is culpable to some extent, I have a hard time buying that they’re at the root of this. While I think it would have been great if they had been more aggressive with the Snyder administration early on, I also don’t suspect that Congress, over the last several years, has empowered them to make such stands. [The House this past summer voted to decrease EPA funding by 9%.]

As Marc Edwards pointed out during his testimony this morning, what happened in Flint could have been avoided, had Congress strengthened the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule in 2004, when it was discovered that people in Washington D.C. were falling victim to lead poisoning. Instead, however, loopholes were enlarged, making it even easier for entities like the MEDQ to downplay problems and avoid having to take action. And this, I think, is the key. Our leaders, over the past decade or more, have been systematically weakening the EPA to the point where its rules no longer have teeth.

“The agencies paid to protect us from lead in drinking water (like the MDEQ) can get away with anything,” Edwards said. “I am begging you… to fix the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule and to fix the U.S. EPA.”

So, just to sum up… In an incredibly ironic twist, we heard a number of House Republicans, who, up until a few weeks ago, wanted to see the EPA defunded to the point of non-existence, making the case that what happened in Flint was not the case of a state administration that chose to subvert democracy in order to prioritize tax cuts over public heath, but a federal environmental agency that wasn’t aggressive enough to stop them… Stay tuned. I suspect, in a few months, the irony will be further compounded when these same House Republicans vote for additional EPA cuts, defending the move by pointing to how the agency “botched” Flint.

Here, in case you’re interested, is footage from today’s hearing. I’d love to know your thoughts.

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13 Comments

  1. H.
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    It makes me sick to see this public health disaster be used to further political agendas on both sides of the aisle.

  2. Demetrius
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Starting most notably with Ronald Reagan, there has been a 40-year-long campaign to convince Americans that “government is the enemy” and that we’ll all be better off it we just cut taxes, cut regulation, cut government programs, etc. In many areas of the country, this is a core campaign message for many successful politicians.

    Yet, when a natural (or in Michigan’s case, man-made) disaster happens, many of these same politicians are the first ones to come running to the federal government looking for $Billions in handouts for “disaster assistance,” or major help from government agencies such as FEMA or the EPA …

    A great example is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who literally hugged President Obama and cried with gratitude over the assistance his state received following a devastating hurricane … then promptly resumed his anti-tax, anti-government stance in the run-up to his presidential primary run.

    Candidates and politicians who promote this hypocrisy are particularly loathsome.

    And, I’m sorry to say it, but citizens who buy into this nonsense by supporting and voting for these people are even worse.

    Somehow, many of these people don’t seem to be able to understand the connection between services we all depend on (roads, bridges, safe drinking water, schools, the ability to help clean up after tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.) and the need to actually pay to develop and maintain them.

  3. Demetrius
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    @ H.

    That is like when when pro-gun people claim it is “disrespectful” to engage in debates about gun legislation every time there is a mass shooting.

    The fact is there is a group in this country that believes in more money for infrastructure, stricter environmental laws, and more robust public oversight of drinking water, etc. … and another group that stands for the opposite principles. While the first priority needs to be helping the people of Flint – there’s no ignoring these opposing political philosophies and governing frameworks lie at the heart of what happened, and how it happened.

    This “public health disaster” is not the result of an epidemic, flood, or something like the Zika virus … is it is direct consequence of individuals making bad (perhaps criminal) decisions based on following a particular brand of politics. To pretend that’s not the case is naive.

  4. Meta
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Not only does the House keep voting to de-fund the EPA, but they keep voting to weaken the EPA’s water safety rules. Here is one example from 2014.

    “White House threatens to veto bill to kill EPA water rule”
    By Timothy Cama for The Hill

    The Obama administration issued a veto threat Monday for a bill that would block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from moving forward on a rule to redefine its jurisdiction over streams and ponds.

    Citing the need to protect waterways from pollution and the rule’s scientific grounding, the White House said it “strongly opposes” the bill and advisers would recommend that President Obama veto it if it reaches his desk.

    “Clarifying the scope of the [Clean Water Act] helps to protect clean water, safeguard public health, and strengthen the economy,” the White House wrote in a notice to House leaders.

    Administration officials said the bill “would derail current efforts to clarify the scope of the CWA, hamstring future regulatory efforts, and create significant ambiguity regarding existing regulations and guidance.”

    The rule was proposed in March to clarify which bodies of water require EPA permits for certain activities that could pollute them. It ran into immediate, strong opposition from Republicans and business leaders, especially in agriculture, calling it a massive land grab by the federal government.

    The EPA, which is working on the rule along with the Army Corps of Engineers, has said those assertions are dead wrong. Officials have repeatedly said that the rule would not significantly expand the government’s authority, most recently in a series of questions and answers about the rule Monday.

    But those actions fell largely on deaf ears. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed the bill in July to kill the proposal.

    Read more:
    http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/217009-white-house-threatens-to-veto-bill-to-kill-epa-water-rule

  5. maryd
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    May I quote you Demetrius? Very well said!

  6. Shane Davis
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I just can’t handle this byzantine maze of lies and ineptitude any longer.

    Mars, here I come!

  7. Alice
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    No shit! Me damn too… gone! Ziggy Stardust – here I come! WTH!

  8. Meta
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    The Washington Post also references the EPA bashing.

    In his second round of questioning, Chaffetz zeroed in on Joel Beauvais, the acting director of water quality for the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Chaffetz asked Beauvais why, when the EPA had information in January that the water might have lead levels in it, it did not act immediately.

    Beauvais said he didn’t know. And Chaffetz went off:

    “You cannot come to a hearing before Congress and be in charge of water quality for the EPA and not know the answer to that question,” Chaffetz said. “You can’t. The crying shame is when they knew there was a problem, they should have told the public. … They should have been out there to warn people like Ms. Walters.”

    Beauvais sat stoically.

    Rad more:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/02/03/6-heated-and-emotional-moments-from-congresss-first-hearing-on-the-flint-water-crisis/

  9. Kim
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    If anyone is interested, I just found the EPA’s Flint page.

    http://www.epa.gov/flint

  10. XXX
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    If they didn’t make the EPA stronger after DC, why would they do it now?

  11. smoking gun
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Did the EPA also make Snyder stay silent on Legionnaires’ disease?

    From today’s Detroit News: “High-ranking officials in Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration were aware of a surge in Legionnaires’ disease potentially linked to Flint’s water long before the governor reported the increase to the public last month, internal emails show. When he disclosed the spike in Legionnaires’ cases on Jan. 13, Snyder said he had learned about it just a couple of days earlier. But emails obtained by the liberal group Progress Michigan through public-records requests and shared with The Associated Press show Snyder’s own office was aware of the outbreak since last March. At the time, others in the administration were scrambling to respond to suggestions that bacteria in the city’s new water source, the Flint River, could be the culprit.”

    http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2016/02/04/flint-water-crisis-legionnaires/79828822/

  12. Demetrius
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    The poisoning is a tragedy.

    The cover-up is a crime.

    Anybody, from Snyder on down, who knew about this and spent their time doing “damage control” instead of warning residents should be tried, convicted, and sent to jail.

  13. Peter Larson
    Posted February 5, 2016 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    There are some very strong reactions in the comments section of this blog post.

5 Trackbacks

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