WASHINGTON — The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, threatened Wednesday to derail the first major federal energy bill in nearly a decade while stirring partisan passions in both the Senate and the House, where members of an oversight committee grilled officials from Michigan and the federal Environmental Protection Agency over their flawed response.
“I don’t care whether it’s the EPA, whether it’s local, whether it’s the state,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “I want everybody who’s responsible for this fiasco to be held accountable.”
Over several hours of tense questioning, the committee sought to stitch together the chain of events that led to the water in Flint being contaminated with high levels of lead, particularly the failure to add a chemical to the water that would have prevented the city’s aging pipes from corroding and leaching lead.
Republicans, including Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, the chairman of the committee, cast blame on the EPA, while Democrats focused on the role of an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, to oversee the city, and on the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.
Chaffetz said he expected the EPA by the end of the week to turn over pertinent emails to and from Susan Hedman, the agency’s former director for the region that includes Michigan. She resigned last week.
Much of the hearing focused on concerns about the lead level in Flint’s water that were raised early last year by an EPA official who tested water samples there, and on why the EPA did not quickly insist then that officials take measures to control corrosion in the Flint water system.
As House members questioned Michigan officials, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, worked feverishly to save a sweeping bipartisan energy bill that Democrats have threatened to derail if $600 million in additional federal aid to Michigan to help clean up the contaminated water is not included in the measure.
But many Republicans said they would not support the bill, which is nearing a final vote in the Senate, if it included the money for the Flint water crisis.
“It’s a huge earmark,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2-ranking Republican. “I think it’s not something I could support. Flint doesn’t have anything to do with the energy bill.”
This week, the contours of a deal were formed, between Murkowski and Democrats, to pay for aid to Flint through a complex funding structure that may have also benefited Sebring, Ohio, where another lead crisis is emerging. But the proposal was found to have tax code implications, Republicans said, that would have prevented the bill from moving forward.
“We are still looking for an offset and still trying to help,” Murkowski said Wednesday, noting that voting down the entire energy bill would ensure that no additional help went to Flint.
Many Republicans said it would be hard to find a solution that would not divide their members. “Flint is a tough issue,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. “My heart goes out to the people there, but if you took every failure of local government and brought it to the federal government to fix,” it would be untenable, he said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., citing the Republicans’ general opposition to federal funding for Flint on Tuesday, expressed skepticism that an agreement could be reached. “I’m wondering what’s really going on,” she said.
The House hearing was one of several Chaffetz has convened at Democrats’ request, but many of them are angry that the committee did not invite Snyder to testify.
Department of Environmental Quality and EPA officials sought to blame each other, but some of the harshest testimony came from LeeAnne Walters, a former Flint resident whose tap water was found to have extremely high lead levels starting early in 2015, and Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor to whom she appealed for help after her concerns were “dismissed,” as she put it, by city and state employees.
Edwards testified that the EPA was “aiding and abetting” the Department of Environmental Quality’s “cover-up” of the problem. Of the EPA, he added, “The crying shame here is when they knew there was a problem, they should have told the public, they should have told the MDEQ, they should have told the experts, and they should have been out there warning people like Ms. Walters.”