(WASHINGTON) — The governor of Michigan and the Obama administration’s top environmental official came under heavy criticism Thursday from lawmakers over their roles in the Flint water crisis, with some members of Congress calling on them to resign.
Both Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA Chief Gina McCarthy accepted some responsibility for the lead contamination of the city’s water supply, while laying the blame for the biggest decisions and blunders at the feet of others.
Snyder and McCarthy appeared at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where members were unified in their disgust that the poisoning of Flint’s water supply was allowed to occur, while splitting on who deserved the most blame.
Democrats focused their anger at Snyder, a Republican, and other state officials, while panel Republicans spent the morning chastising McCarthy and her agency for not acting more quickly.
“If the EPA doesn’t know when to step in and ensure a community has safe drinking water, I’m not sure why it exists at all,” said committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
Questioning frequently grew heated, particularly when either Snyder and McCarthy cast blame elsewhere.
“Pretty soon we will have men who strike their wives saying ‘I’m sorry dear, but there were failures at all levels,'” Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Penn.) told Snyder before saying the governor should resign.
Flint’s problems began when the city switched its water source from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in 2014 as a cost-cutting measure. The river water was not treated properly for erosion and lead from aging pipes leached into Flint’s water supply, causing a public health crisis in the city.
The committee has been holding a series of hearings to investigate how the poisoning of Flint’s water supply came to happen and why it wasn’t addressed more quickly.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the panel, also called on Snyder to resign.
“The governor’s fingerprints are all over this,” he said. “It looks like almost everyone knew about this problem but you. You were missing in action. That’s not leadership.”
Snyder said he was misled about the water crisis for more than a year, and insisted the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality told him water from the Flint River was safe. It wasn’t until Oct. 1, 2015, almost 18 months after the city started taking its water from the Flint, that Snyder said he learned the water was contaminated.
“Are you saying that the people you trusted… that they failed to inform you of a health crisis in your state?” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) asked the governor.
He responded: “I kick myself every day in terms of what more questions could I have asked, what more could we have done.”
Both witnesses were repeatedly cut off by lawmakers lecturing them on how they fell down on the job. Snyder said he wanted to move past the finger pointing and focus on solutions, but he didn’t hold back on blaming the state’s environmental office and the EPA.
“Inefficient, ineffective, and unaccountable bureaucrats at the EPA allowed this disaster to continue unnecessarily,” Synder said.
In her own testimony, McCarthy argued state officials made the mistakes that led to the lead contamination.
“The crisis we’re seeing was the result of a state-appointed emergency manager deciding that the city would stop purchasing treated drinking water and instead switch to an untreated source to save money,” McCarthy said.
Chaffetz aggressively questioned McCarthy multiple times during the hearing. He noted that one EPA official has already resigned over the Flint debacle. Susan Hedman, the EPA official who was in charge of the Midwest region when the water supply became contaminated, stepped down in January due to what she called “false allegations” that she downplayed the severity of crisis.
Chaffetz suggested McCarthy follow her lead after one testy exchange.
“If you want to do the courageous thing like you said that Susan Hedman did, then you, too, should resign,” he told the EPA chief.
The White House came to McCarthy’s defense Thursday.
“She understands how serious this is and the truth is, when you take a look at the record that she has compiled, just in her few years as the administrator of the EPA, there is a strong case to make that the United States of America has never had a better administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency than Gina McCarthy,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
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