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EPA Chief, Michigan Governor Asked to Resign Over Flint Water Crisis

Mar 17, 2016

EPA Chief, Michigan Governor Asked to Resign Over Flint Water Crisis

Republican leaders point blame at EPA’s McCarthy, while Democrats say Gov. Snyder failed to act

In a heated exchange during the Flint Michigan water-crisis hearing, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan was asked to resign for ‘putting dollars over the fundamental safety of the people.’ Photo: AP

By

AMY HARDER and KRIS MAHER

Updated March 17, 2016 12:15 p.m.

WASHINGTON—Top House Republicans called on the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency to resign over the federal government’s role in the lead-tainted water crisis in Flint, Mich., while Democrats called on the state’s Republican governor to step down over the failures of state regulators who reported to him.

At the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder repeatedly clashed with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy over whether state or federal regulators were more to blame for delays in addressing the crisis last year.

Flint’s drinking water became contaminated after the city began using the Flint River in April 2014 and failed to use a chemical to control corrosion of aging pipes, allowing lead to leach into drinking water.

Republicans on the committee, which was holding its third hearing on Flint, directed most of the anger toward Ms. McCarthy for failing to act more forcefully last summer when she learned of the city’s lead problem.

“Why do we even need an EPA?” asked Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), the committee’s chairman. He criticized Ms. McCarthy for waiting until January to take direct action in Flint, and for not visiting the city until February.

“You had the authority and the backing of the federal government, and you did not act,” he said. “If you want to do the courageous thing, then you should resign too.”

Ms. McCarthy defended her actions, saying that she was working within the framework of the federal rules that govern how states and the EPA are supposed to work together to ensure safe drinking water systems.

“The one thing I’m trying to make very clear is that we did not create this problem,” said Ms. McCarthy. While she didn’t say that EPA officials had done anything wrong, she said at another point in the hearing, “Were we late in getting it done? Yes. Are there consequences to that? Absolutely.”

Such answers didn’t satisfy many Republican committee members, who pointed to a memo written in June 2015 by an EPA water official citing high lead levels at several Flint homes and the city’s failure to implement corrosion control.

“Again, a high-school student could take this report and see that kids were getting poisoned,” said Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.) to Ms. McCarthy. “I heard calls for resignations. I think you should be at the top of the list.”

Ms. McCarthy said when the EPA began to learn of the scope of the contamination last summer, it discussed the problem with state regulators and was told the state would require corrosion control be implemented. However the state didn’t do so until December.

Thursday’s hearing offered the first chance for lawmakers of both parties to grill the two highest-ranking officials involved in Flint’s water crisis. Democrats continued to focus more on the role of state regulators under Mr. Snyder and his appointment of a series of emergency managers who took control of the financially distressed city and left its elected mayor and city council with little decision-making power.

Mr. Snyder said, as he has in the past, that he took responsibility for the crisis occurring on his watch. “I apologize to the people of Flint. They deserve that. I understand why they’re angry,” he said.

But such statements only sparked hostile reactions from Democratic members.

“Plausible deniability only works when it’s plausible. You were not in a medically induced coma for a year,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright (D., Pa.). “I’ve had enough of your false contrition. You need to resign too, Gov. Snyder.”

Ms. McCarthy defended her agency by saying that information provided by water officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to the EPA’s Region 5 office was confusing, incomplete and incorrect, delaying the agency’s ability to grasp the scope of the problem. “Their interactions with us were intransigent, misleading and contentious,” Ms. McCarthy said.

A task force appointed by Mr. Snyder concluded in December that the MDEQ bore the primary responsibility for the lead contamination because its officials failed to require that Flint’s water-treatment plant use a chemical to prevent corrosion of old pipes.

Current and former officials at MDEQ have said the agency should have required corrosion control in Flint.

On Thursday, Mr. Snyder put more of the blame on the EPA, saying that “inefficient, ineffective and unaccountable bureaucrats at the EPA allowed this disaster to continue unnecessarily.”

One thing Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Snyder agreed on was that the federal regulations intended to mitigate the risks of lead in drinking water are outdated and need to be rewritten. Mr. Snyder said that if the “dumb and dangerous” federal Lead and Copper Rule isn’t changed, similar problems will arise in other U.S. cities.

Ms. McCarthy said her agency is working to revise the rules, but that the rules as they stand now could have prevented Flint’s water crisis had the state and city acted properly. “We didn’t need any change to the rule in order to prevent this problem from happening,” she said.

Republicans blasted her for what they said was a lack of focus on the water rule while writing thousands of other regulations.

Doris Patrick, a 67-year-old lifelong resident of Flint, said both Mr. Snyder and Ms. McCarthy should resign, though her harshest words were reserved for the governor.

“Rick Snyder should be in jail. He should be in prison. He committed a crime. Anyone else would have been arrested by now. Period,” said Ms. Patrick, who said she took a bus for more than 14 hours to attend the hearing.

She and dozens of others haven’t been able to sit in the hearing, which has about 60 seats—most of which have been reserved for media and other officials, including civil-rights activist Al Sharpton.

“Flint can’t get in the hearing,” said Ms. Patrick, who added that she and others in Flint are still drinking bottled water and didn’t know when they would be able to drink tap water again.

Nia 2X, president of the Greater D.C. Chapter of National Action Network, who helped organize Flint residents to travel to Washington for the hearing, said about 15% to 20% of the hearing-room seats were filled with people from Flint. More than a hundred were still waiting in line during the first half of the hearing, Ms. 2X said, adding that she thought there were roughly 500 in line at the beginning of the hearing. Many attendees went into the overflow room where they can watch the hearing on TVs.

Write to Amy Harder at amy.harder@wsj.com and Kris Maher atkris.maher@wsj.com