- Lawmakers call for Michigan's Republican governor to resign
- Obama's EPA chief comes under fire for agency's slow response
Congressional Republicans sought Thursday to deflect blame for the water crisis in Flint, Michigan from that state’s governor, a once-rising star in the party, to federal regulators they said failed to act quickly enough.
"I’ve heard calls for resignation. I think you should be at that top of the list," Florida Republican Representative John Mica told U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy at an appearance before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Democrats called for the resignation of Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, who also testified.
The partisan fireworks illustrated the national political repercussions of a decision by state overseers to switch water suppliers in the impoverished city to save money. The move resulted in lead leaching into the drinking water used by tens of thousands of Michigan residents, including children who now face learning disabilities and developmental delays.
Both Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have visited Flint, blasting local officials’ handling of the problem and calling on Snyder to resign. It has also bogged down Capitol Hill where a dispute over how -- and whether -- to steer aid to Flint stalled Senate action on a major energy bill.
"I’ve had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies," Representative Matt Cartwright, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, told Snyder. “People who put dollars over the fundamental safety of the people do not belong in government, and you need to resign too.”
Mica said McCarthy bears the ultimate responsibility after he said an EPA official’s concerns about Flint’s water were suppressed. "The district head gets a vacation bonus, the kids get lead poison, and you’re still in office."
Jason Chaffetz of Utah, the Republican chairman of the panel, joined in Mica’s call.
At one point in the combative hearing, Chaffetz told McCarthy to "just listen" while he laid out a series of accusations.
"You had the opportunity, you had the presence, you had the authority, you had the backing of the federal government and you didn’t act when you had the chance," Chaffetz said. "If you’re going to do the courageous thing, you too should step down."
Representative Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois said both McCarthy and Snyder share blame. If the EPA administrator should resign, Snyder should too, she said.
As lawmakers grilled McCarthy and Snyder inside the hearing room, Michigan residents and activists lined the marble hallway outside, some toting gallon jugs of murky brown water.
Lead began flowing into Flint’s drinking water two years ago, when the city stopped relying on supplies from Detroit and turned to the Flint River to save money. Because that river water wasn’t sufficiently treated to be less corrosive, lead began leaching out of aging pipes.
EPA and state officials have been tangling over who is responsible, with both sides trading blame during an earlier hearing on Tuesday. An emergency manager in Flint testified that he believed water problems were limited, based on data and guidance from state and federal experts. The former administrator of EPA Region 5, Susan Hedman, who resigned in January, said she only learned of the water problem in June, and didn’t believe anyone at the agency "did anything wrong" though "we could have done more."
Snyder said the EPA allowed Flint’s water crisis "to continue unnecessarily" and "systemic failures" at Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality led to false assurances the city’s water was safe.
‘We All Failed’
"This was a failure of government at all levels," Snyder told the House panel. "Local, state, and federal officials -- we all failed the families of Flint."
Snyder -- who was even considered as a possible running mate for the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney -- is now facing a recall campaign.
In her testimony to the House panel, McCarthy, who once worked for Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts, cast blame on Michigan, noting that states are responsible for enforcing safe drinking water standards.
Nevertheless, McCarthy said, EPA “should not have been so trusting of the state for so long” when provided with “overly simplistic assurances of technical compliance” with regulations “rather than substantive responses to our growing concerns."
"We spent way too long trusting the state that they were doing the right thing," she said.
Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, insisted it was Snyder’s administration who chose to switch Flint’s water supplies, ignored warnings not to make the change and delayed essential water treatment that could have prevented the problems.
"This is a tragic situation, but let’s be clear -- this is not just on the EPA," Cummings said. "Republicans are definitely trying to blame everything on the EPA. I agree the EPA should have done more. They should have rushed in sooner to rescue the people of Michigan from Governor Snyder’s vindictive administration and its utter incompetence at every level."