By Christian Flinn
Lessons to be Learned and Steps to be Taken
Recent events have once again thrust the city of Flint, Michigan into the spotlight. First, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (OGR) has held a series of hearings titled Examining Federal Administration of the Safe Drink Water Act in Flint, Michigan. The most recent occurred on March 17. Along with the hearing, the Democratic candidates for President, Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, held heated debates on March 6 and March 9 that covered possible solutions to the water crisis in Flint as well as what could be done to prevent something similar from occurring elsewhere. The following is a breakdown of each event and the possible implications for Flint and the rest of the country moving forward.
Beginning with the series of hearings being held by OGR, it is crucial to understand that the committee – Chaired by Representative Jason Chaffetz (UT-3) and made up by the following members – is not only looking to place blame but also quantify it and solve the underlying issue. While all three hearings have content relevant to the ongoing debate, the most recent of them has been the most heavily publicized and the most telling of the committee’s agenda. This is due in part to the high-profile of the witnesses: Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy, both of whom have been heavily criticized for their mishandling of the Flint crisis in the months leading up to the declaration of a State of Emergency in Flint in January 2016. It is also due to the idea that the crisis has caused a loss faith in government and someone must be held accountable.
From the opening statements, it became clear that the witnesses disagreed on which one of them was most at fault – even though both placed a considerable amount of blame on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). According to both witnesses, the experts and Emergency Manager in charge of the MDEQ were the ones who first advocated for Flint’s switching its water supply to the untreated Flint River in a move driven by budgetary concerns in 2014. Furthermore, the witnesses claim, the MDEQ gave consistent assurances that the quality of the water in question was acceptable and fit for human consumption – despite complaints about its color and odor since the switch occurred. It is there, however, that agreement between the EPA and the Governor as to what happened ends. The EPA claims The same could be said about the members of the committee. Republicans tended to place heavier blame on the EPA and Democrats on the Governor, with both himself and the EPA Administrator receiving calls for their resignation.
The hearing proceeded amid heated questioning and several interruptions, with members chastising the witnesses for their lack of action and for their perceived refusal to take responsibility for the crisis in Flint. Chairman Chaffetz and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (MD-7) were especially adamant in their testimonies. Chairman Chaffetz pressed Administrator McCarthy on what he perceived as her inaction in firing or forcing the resignation of then EPA Midwest Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman – under whose jurisdiction Flint fell – and repeatedly told her to take responsibility for the EPA’s overall mishandling of the crisis. Ranking Member Cummings, putting heavy pressure on Governor Snyder, stated his disbelief that the Governor was kept in the dark as to how severe the crisis was and how detrimental the lead seepage into the water supply was to the health of the people of Flint. He ended his statement with one of many calls for the Governor’s resignation.
For their part, the witnesses claimed that they were now doing everything within their power and jurisdiction to solve the problem and prevent it from occurring in other places. This caused a number of members to scrutinize proposed strategies, such as the Governor’s request for $165 million in additional appropriations in order to replace pipes and reimburse citizens for water bills they should not have had to pay for. It also provided a platform for Administrator McCarthy to voice her views on the overall state of the country’s infrastructure, which she claims Flint’s water pipes, which were old and never treated with anti-corrosion agents, exemplify. While the governor praised one EPA scientist, Miguel del Toral, for his attempts at warning the state of the potential danger from lead seepage, he criticized the agency for, in the Governor’s view, acting to silence him. Administrator McCarthy denied these allegations repeatedly and instead blamed the State government for approving the shift to the Flint River in the first place and being “intransigent and misleading” with their reports on the lead seepage, which ultimately proved detrimental to the EPA’s ability to step in. To summarize, the hearing came down to determining who was legally responsible for the crisis and who needed to be held accountable – although neither witness was ever absolved of wrongdoing by the members of the committee.
On a separate, if similar, note, the Democratic debates between former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have catapulted Flint into the election season spotlight. The first debate on March 6 in Flint immediately turned to three topics concerning the city’s water crisis: the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder, the efforts each candidate would take to fix and prevent the problem from happening again, and how to improve government accountability. Both candidates supported recalling or forcing the Governor to resign but they were less adamant about the role played by the EPA, though it should be noted that they called for any superiors involved to “be relieved of their job.”
On another issue related to the Flint crisis, the second debate on March 9 in Miami, FL saw Secretary Clinton comment on the need for focusing on resilience and upgrading the nation’s infrastructure. Given the comments by other sources, including EPA Administrator McCarthy, it would seem the issue is coming to the forefront. As put by Dr. Norma Jean Mattei, President-Elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the overall grade of American infrastructure is at a D+ according to her organization’s 2013 Report Card. With that in mind, Administrator McCarthy’s sentiment that the crisis in Flint could happen elsewhere if action is not taken gains strength. Echoing these thoughts, Secretary Clinton stated that not only is investment in infrastructure necessary, it will create a stronger economy and safer cities and states that are prepared to fight future complications. What is important to note is that if proper maintenance of infrastructure is not conducted, costs for cities like Flint will only increase and this should be the main concern of hearings and debates on the matter. While the crisis was preventable, it was preventable in many ways and chief among them was proper maintenance and treatment of water infrastructure. With Congress now entering appropriations negotiations, it seems logical that considerations not only for new infrastructure but also updating older installations should be made and, given the Flint crisis, the tangible benefits of these investments are clearer than ever before.
For further information, contact Christian Flinn at Christian.Flinn@warwickconsultants.net.