The Environmental Protection Agency warned of an unfolding toxic water crisis in Flint but was “met with resistance” by Michigan authorities, a fiery congressional hearing into the city’s public health disaster has heard.
Expert advice was dismissed, prompting Michigan’s government to issue an apology to the people of Flint at the hearing for sidelining people who raised concerns over dangerous levels of lead in in the city’s water.
Congress was also told that flawed water testing practices, now eliminated in Flint, are happening unchecked across the US, risking a much wider public health crisis in other cities.
A picture emerged at the hearing of failure, delay and resistance as state officials ignored scientists and kept the public in the dark about health risks. One senior official admitted there were still no guarantees that water was safe to drink, conceding: “We all let the people of Flint down.”
Joel Beauvais, acting deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s office of water, said the regulator was aware of elevated lead levels in Flint’s water in spring 2015, with these problems outlined further in a June 2015 memo .
Beauvais told the congressional committee that what happened in Flint was “avoidable and should never have happened” after the city switched from Detroit’s treated water to untreated water from the Flint river in April 2014. Flint was under direct emergency management by Michigan at the time.
“The Michigan department of environmental quality (MDEQ) incorrectly advised the city of Flint that corrosion control treatment was not necessary, resulting in leaching of lead into the city’s drinking water,” he 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.”
Keith Creagh, director of the MDEQ, told the hearing that he was apologetic to the people of Flint and admitted: ‘We still cannot guarantee that the water is safe to drink.
“When government finally responded to the public outcry, thanks to the relentless efforts of independent scientists whose warnings turned out to be correct – our tone was combative and dismissive,” said Creagh, who was appointed in January. “None of the levels of government communicated effectively with the public.”
Creagh said that while Michigan’s implementation of federal lead and copper regulations “was ineffective in protecting public health”, he also blamed the EPA for a lack in urgency in addressing the problem by not forwarding the June memo until November.
“Legitimate concerns raised by EPA’s own expert staff were not elevated or provided to either the city or the state for review and action until after the state’s response was well under way,” he said.
“We all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis. We all let the citizens of Flint down.”
The only thing I can conclude is that the EPA doesn’t care about children drinking water with lead in it
Congressmen and women across the party divide on the oversight committee attacked the “outrageous failure at every level” that caused elevated lead levels in Flint’s drinking water. The crisiswas ignored or sidelined for over a year until a state of emergency was declared in December .
Lead is a known neurotoxin that can cause hair loss, vomiting and developmental problems when ingested. The American Academy of Paediatrics wrote to the hearing to state that thousands of children aged under six in Flint have been exposed to lead poisoning and will need ongoing help with health and behavioral issues.
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech academic who led independent sampling of Flint’s water to uncover the crisis, said the failure to act on previous lead poisoning incidents, such as in Washington DC in 2004, shows an ongoing “callous disregard” for public health.
“Agencies that are paid to protect us from lead in water can get away with anything,” he told the hearing. “It’s part 1984 and part Enemy of the People. I’m begging you, please: fix the EPA lead and copper rule, and fix the EPA.
“The only thing I can conclude is that the EPA doesn’t care about children drinking water with lead in it. You’d have to ask them why they don’t do the job they are paid to do. Had it not been for people completely outside the system, children in Flint would still be drinking that water today. That is a fact.”
Edwards and Leanne Walters, a Flint resident whose household had an extremely high reading for lead in its water, said that the EPA has allowed “loopholes” in the testing of water to persist across the US despite previous warnings.
These include, as the Guardian has revealed , the “pre-flushing” of faucets the night before a water test to influence the amount of lead in a sample, a failure to test high-risk homes, and instructions to pour water slowly into a testing bottle, thereby not dislodging lead into the sample.
“The EPA has cast a blind eye on these municipalities,” Edwards said. “In Durham, North Carolina, in 2008, children were poisoned because the water was tested after the aerator was removed from faucets. The EPA wrote a memo to ban this protocol but they know water utilities still use that protocol. It’s extremely frustrating.”
Walters added: “I’m outraged EPA still allows this dishonesty with testing to continue.”
Beauvais said the issue was a “concern” and something that the EPA was starting to look at nationally.
Jason Chaffetz, the Republican representative who is chairing the hearing, said the committee will look to question other figures, including Michigan governor Rick Snyder and Darnell Earley, who was the emergency manager of Flint at the time. Earley was mean to appear at the hearing but didn’t. Chaffetz said he has issued a subpoena for Earley to attend and that US marshals will “hunt him down” and bring him before the committee.
“This is the United States of America, this isn’t a third world country, this isn’t meant to happen here,” Chaffetz said. “I can’t comprehend what the families are going through. This is a failing at every level. The public has a right to be outraged and it must be fixed.”
The EPA has been working directly in Flint since an emergency order was signed in January. The FBI is also investigating the issue. Michigan declared its own state of emergency on January 5, which has prompted the handing out of 234,000 cases of bottled water and 100,000 water filters to Flint residents.
Over 100 residents from Detroit and Flint, spread out across four buses, traveled to Washington for the hearing on Wednesday.
As the hearing was underway, a group of 30 to 40 Flint residents marched down Independence Avenue, chanting “Flint lives matter” and “arrest Governor Snyder”.
Inside the building, a line snaked out of the hearing room, which was crowded to capacity. Two other overflow rooms were filled out with lively groups of observers. At one point, when Virginia congressman and committee member Gerry Connolly told the room “I do want to get the governor at this table”, an approving overflow room broke out in applause.
Flint resident Tammy Loren said the congressional hearings should “put an end to this”.
“Everybody needs to be held accountable from the top to the lowest,” Loren said.
She found out two weeks ago that her four sons – ages 14, 12, 11, and 10 – had elevated lead levels in their blood. “All of us have skin conditions,” she said. “My 12-year-old is the worst. He has what looks like chicken pox all over his body that he’s had for over a year now and through all kinds of treatments, nothing works. It’s been an extreme struggle.”
Her family kept using their household water, she said, placing trust in the government’s word.
“Everybody kept saying the water was safe,” Loren said. “All you had to do was boil it. So we didn’t know, we didn’t know the truth until everything came out.”