by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
The federal and state actors that poisoned Flint, Michigan’s water tried to pin the crime on each other at a congressional hearing, last week. Governor Rick Synder, who set the crime in motion, failed in his attempt to concoct an ignorance-of-the-facts alibi. And the federal EPA chief could not escape the fact that she neglected to use her “authority to protect the citizens of Flint from situations of ‘imminent and substantial endangerment.’”
EPA Officials Didn’t “Want to go Out on a Limb” for the People of Flint
by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
“No one has been charged with even a misdemeanor for poisoning these residents.”
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held two important Hearings, March 15th and 17th on the poisoning of Flint, Michigan residence.
The stakes were high on the first of the two Hearings, March 15, when disgraced former Region 5 EPA Administrator, Susan Hedman, appeared before the Committee. Former Emergency Manager Darnell Walling – who served as the surrogate for the Republican Michigan Governor, Rick Snyder – and former Flint Mayor, Dwayne Walling, were called to testify. As if that was not pressure enough, seated to Hedman’s left was Dr. Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech water expert who has been so instrumental in blowing up this scandal, with scathing reports of mismanagement, corruption, retaliation and incompetence at all three levels of government, especially the EPA.
For Hedman, this represented her first prolonged sworn testimony since her February 1 forced resignation after it was revealed that she had been less than transparent concerning what she knew about the water quality that poisoned thousands of Flint residents with lead – and that after alarming results showed dangerous levels of lead and other toxins in Flint’s drinking water, she chose to ignore the findings of one of her water experts and look the other way, rather than enact any of several immediate remedies within her jurisdiction.
Chair Jason Chaffetz focused on the central issue of the Hearing by exposing an internal EPA memo from Region 5: “I’m not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for.”
“Flint River water was never tested prior to becoming the primary source for households.”
While EPA officials may now be embarrassed to take ownership of this statement, the realty is that communities like Flint have been made into sacrifice zones, regions of human habitation that are considered disposable, representing one of the cruel realities of “disaster capitalism.” To-date, no one has been charged with even a misdemeanor for poisoning these residents. The only penalty for managers of the state like McCarthy, Synder and Hedman for causing unspeakable suffering – including miscarriages, permanently disabling young children with learning disabilities – and causing chronic diseases from drinking poisoned water is publicly facing congressional questions during a Hearing. That’s all.
The sole unifying principle for the EPA and local governments was that the people of Flint were of no consequence. Flint River water was never tested prior to becoming the primary source for households.
In the convoluted snarl of federal, state and, although symbolic, local governance that is the Flint water crisis there has been one clarifying constant – Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards. In a clear and unrestrained tone he indicted EPA Hedman:
"I personally witnessed and exposed misconduct by EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman. Ms. Hedman actively aided, abetted and emboldened the unethical behavior of civil servants at the State of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. She allowed Flint children to be harmed. Consequently, why should Ms. Hedman not face the same or worse fate as a common landlord who engaged in similar behavior? Had Flint residents not fought for the truth with the assistance of compassionate outsiders, the harm to Flint’s children would never have been exposed."
“Why should Ms. Hedman not face the same or worse fate as a common landlord who engaged in similar behavior?”
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy preemptively attempted to control the message prior to her appearance before the Committee on Thursday by penning a Washington Post op-ed titled: “Michigan Evaded the EPA on Flint. We Can’t Let That Happen Elsewhere.” She casts aspersions on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, claiming that “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.” The self-serving column foreshadowed what would become the agency’s line of defense: that Michigan was exclusively to blame. The agency had reluctantly dismissed what McCarthy described as its “honorable” Region 5 Administrator, Susan Hedman, for her inelegant handling of the rogue state.
Marc Edwards countered McCarthy’s op-ed by stating: "I was…disappointed, that EPA administrator Gina McCarty wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday that absolved the EPA of any wrong doing in Flint. Aside from EPA’s direct role in creating the aforementioned climate in which ‘a Flint’ was inevitable... Because our efforts failed to make these agencies take lead in water risks seriously, I was not surprised by ‘a Flint’ water crisis. I was expecting it."
The question begging to be asked during the Hearing regards the relationship between Susan Hedman and EPA Administrator McCarthy is the same central question of the Watergate Hearings: What did McCarthy know about the poisoning and when did she know it? Without having an answer to this question, we will never know the full extent of direct involvement by McCarthy in the poisoning of Flint’s water supply.
“I was not surprised by ‘a Flint’ water crisis. I was expecting it."
That question was left unasked and unanswered at the Tuesday and Thursday Hearings.
For his part, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder wasn’t much better. Flint residents dismissed his lamentations that he “kicks himself every day,” over his role in the water crisis, pointing out that he had visited Flint several times since the beginning of the scandal but the residents only learned of his visits after he had left.
He apologized several times, saying he said he understood their anger and frustration. “This was a failure of government at all levels. Local, state, and federal officials – we all failed the families of Flint.” The governor asserted, “I am not going to point fingers or shift blame; there is plenty of that to share, and neither will help the people of Flint.”
Then he pointed his finger at the EPA.
“A water expert at the federal EPA, tried to raise an alarm in February 2015, and he was silenced,” he testified. “The EPA allowed this disaster to continue unnecessarily.” The disaster happened because of Michigan’s economic hardship. He omitted his administration's denying state funds to cities despite Michigan's hundreds of millions in surplus.
All three Congressional Hearings served as partisan inquisitions with Democrats and Republicans skewering the other's representatives – while the knife ultimately slid again into Flint’s guts – with the city, the state, and the EPA taking turns inflicting injury.
“What did McCarthy know about the poisoning and when did she know it?”
In the end, EPA had the legal authority to protect the citizens of Flint from “imminent and substantial endangerment.” McCarthy had emergency powers under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to seize control of Flint's environmentally dangerous designs created by the governor and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality:
“…the EPA Administrator [has] broad authority to act to protect the health of persons in situations where there may be an imminent and substantial endangerment. Specifically, section 1431 provides that, upon receipt of information that a contaminant that is present in or likely to enter a public water system or an underground source of drinking water, or there is a threatened or potential terrorist attack or other intentional act, that may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of persons, the EPA Administrator may take any action she deems necessary to protect human health.”
There was a young 8-year-old boy outside the hearing room, who when I asked why he had come replied, “I have lead poisoning. I could die.” Later, his grandmother spoke at a press conference and told media that “her grandson used to be a straight A student who looked forward to going to college but now after drinking poisoned water” – she choked and fought back tears – “he is receiving straight F’s.”
Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated: No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. She worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered South African vanadium mine workers. Marsha's successful lawsuit led to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). She is Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet, serves on the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.com and coordinates the Hands Up Coalition, DC.