As predicted, the finger pointing over the Flint Water crisis has expended well outside the borders of Michigan and is eating up time in Congress this week. Answers are being demanded and virtually everyone has a scapegoat in mind to blame as long as it’s not them. We learned shortly after the full breadth of the crisis became evident that the EPA knew about the dangers posed by the water as early as eight months before anyone else found out but they sat on the information, citing bureacratic entaglements between agencies as their reason. This week, the head of the responsible agency, Gina McCarthy, took to the pages of the Washington Post to fess up to their shortcomings.
Naw… I’m just kidding. She’s blaming Rick Snyder like every other Democrat in sight.
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Congress gives states primary responsibility for enforcing drinking water rules for the nation’s approximately 152,000 water systems, but the Environmental Protection Agency has oversight authority. The EPA’s relationship with states under the act is usually a strong and productive partnership. But looking back on Flint, it is clear that, from day one, Michigan did not act as a partner. The state’s interactions with us were dismissive, misleading and unresponsive. The EPA’s regional office was also provided with confusing, incomplete and incorrect information. As a result, EPA staff members were unable to understand the scope of the lead problem until more than a year after the switch to untreated water. Michigan did not act with a sense of urgency to treat the system and inform the public in ways we have come to expect from our state partners. While we were repeatedly and urgently telling the state to do so, looking back, we missed opportunities late last summer to get our concerns onto the public’s radar.
This is a rather amazing bit of tap dancing in an attempt to deflect blame. As with most such missives, there are bits of truth embedded in the larger tapestry of deception to make it look more legitimate, but these excuses simply won’t wash. It’s absolutely true that the state – through an appointed emergency manager – made the initial decision to switch water supplies and it turned out to be a disastrous one. But the failure there was through a lack of foresight and the result of the law of unintended consequences. It was, in short, a mistake. Let’s call it incompetence on the part of the emergency manager or whatever you like. As the captain of the ship, Governor Snyder has to own up to that responsibility and he has done so repeatedly.
But the EPA played a far more sinister role. Rather than a bunch of bureaucrats trying to save a buck, they’re supposed to be the experts in the science of these matters. And they knew about the danger for eight months. They could have told the Governor. They could have told the mayor. They could have alerted the press so they could tell everyone to stop drinking the water. And they did nothing. But all McCarthy has to say about that part of the crime is, we missed opportunities late last summer to get our concerns onto the public’s radar.
That’s a darned funny way to describe the fact that you knew people were drinking toxic sludge and didn’t tell anyone.
McCarthy also seems to forget that one of her workers already took the stand last month and gave a very different answer. Susan Hedman, who resigned on February 1st as the head of EPA’s Region 5, was a bit more honest in her assessment while still ducking blame herself. (Government Executive)
“EPA responded in the only way we could,” Hedman testified, “by working within the cooperative federalism framework of the Safe Drinking Water Act. That framework assigns legal primacy to states to implement drinking water regulations and gives EPA the job of setting standards and providing technical assistance.” During the weeks and months that followed, she added, the Michigan environmental department “was slow to deliver on the agreement we reached on July 21, and the City of Flint was hampered by a lack of institutional capacity and resources.”
Under skeptical questioning from Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Hedman rebutted allegations that she retaliated against del Toral by denying him travel privileges or forced him into ethics training. “I offered him a bonus and our highest award, but he declined because he said his work was not finished,” she told lawmakers.
Hedman sat on the report which correctly identified the danger to Flint’s residents and the whistleblower who wanted to take it public mysteriously never made it to the front pages of the local paper. I wonder how that happened? But now McCarthy is getting ready to take the stand and repeat these falsehoods, preparing to try to blame the entire thing on the Governor who didn’t find out what her agency knew until nearly Christmas. Will the Senate allow this travesty to go unchallenged? Let’s hope not.