By: Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D.
I am astonished and pleased by the level of Congressional discourse on the poisoning of the water of Flint, Michigan.
I remember inviting witnesses for a House hearing on corruption at agencies like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development. Yet my boss canceled the hearing at the last moment. No explanations. This was sometime in the spring of 1978.
Corporations and rich people lobby members of Congress incessantly. In return, members of Congress expect donations to their reelection campaigns. They are so busy collecting promises and funds that technical issues or government regulation and environmental protection are mere blips on their radar. If they focus on them, it’s because they want to score victories against their political opponents. “Hearing” is more than gathering of evidence. It is primarily political theater.
However, the tragedy of thousands of residents of Flint, Michigan drinking lead-laced water since 2013 has galvanized an unusual Congressional interest. Senators and Representatives want to know how and why the poisoning happened. Why did the State of Michigan and the US Environmental Protection Agency fail to safeguard the water of Flint?
These are important questions. How we answer them, especially how Michigan and EPA answer them, will determine the continuation or the interruption of the mechanisms that allowed lead in the drinking water of Flint and, probably, the rest of the country.
I watched two of the Flint water hearings by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, March 15 and 17, 2016. Marc Edwards, professor of environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, accused the EPA of willful blindness. He said he expected the poisoning of the water of Flint to happen. After all, the same thing had taken place in Washington, DC, 2001-2004, and the Centers for Disease Control and the EPA learned nothing from that experience. Edwards accused these agencies for callous disregard of children’s health. They cannot be trusted, he said.
Indeed, the entire country may be on the verge of Flint-like water conditions.
Edwards is a reliable witness. He has followed the water problems of the country and the role of EPA for a long time. In fact, he tested the Flint water and sounded the alarm for elevated amounts of lead. He accused former EPA regional administrator Susan Hedman of “unacceptable and criminal” behavior.
An EPA insider working out of Chicago, Miguel Del Total, warned his colleagues of probable water poisoning in Flint. In July 8, 2015, he complained his work on Flint put his career at risk. “It almost sounds like I’m to be stuck in a corner holding up a potted plant because of Flint. One mis-step in 27+ years here and people lose their minds,” he wrote to a colleague.
The other major failure of the EPA was in not using its power to enforce the law and overcome the political bias of Michigan in allowing the poisoning of the Flint water to go on. Section 1431 of the Safe Water Drinking Act gives the EPA administrator the authority to protect people in situations of probable “immanent and substantial endangerment” — exactly the conditions at Flint.
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy put the blame for the poisoning of the water of Flint squarely on Michigan officials. But the Republicans on the committee zeroed in on her and the EPA. How come the EPA had not updated the Lead and Copper Rule? Why didn’t McCarthy fire Hedman but let her resign? Why didn’t the EPA use its emergency powers to prevent the poisoning?
The Democrats on the committee turned on Rick Snyder, governor of Michigan. Why did he take so much time to declare a state of emergency?
Congressman Elijah Cummings, Democratic minority leader on the committee, barely hiding his anger, said to the governor of Michigan he did not trust him. Why, he asked the governor, should the people of Michigan pay a million for his legal fees and, in return, the governor, to save money, put the people of Flint to such a danger? Shouldn’t you resign? He asked Snyder.
The children of Flint, Cummings said, are facing a destiny “cut off and messed up.” Yes, indeed, the future of the poisoned children is likely to be full of troubles.
But the larger moral question is that, like Edwards said, we have had plenty of Flints before Flint. Why do we tolerate such unacceptable and criminal behavior from the industry and the government?
Did the Republican and Democratic members of the House committee have to fight their private wars by taking sides? The Republicans, after all, have been trying to shut down EPA. So listening to them preach EPA officials of screwing up, did not sound convincing.
Let’s hope Americans learn the Flint lesson this time. Flint is us.