Washington’s sound and fury signifies little for Flint

There is no joy in watching your governor hauled before the U.S. Congress to explain his role in the public health crisis in Flint, where the water still is not safe to drink.

Nor is there satisfaction in watching said governor admit responsibility, then punt blame toward any possible port: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the career civil servants laboring in those agencies … blame rests nearly everywhere, in Gov. Rick Snyder’s delineation, but in his own hands.

And there is no promise of amends in some Republican representatives’ nakedly partisan attacks on the EPA, an agency that surely deserves its share of the blame in this disaster, but has been hobbled by years of determined effort by the GOP-led Congress. Equally unproductive are some Democratic representatives’ call for Snyder to resign.

The water crisis in Flint, where 100,000 Michiganders were exposed to lead-contaminated water, will likely define Snyder’s legacy. The governor who promised to change this state’s image surely has, albeit not in the way he had imagined.

Snyder’s Michigan is a state in disgrace, a state that cannot provide the most basic necessity of life — safe water — to its residents. The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has held three public hearings on Flint. On Thursday, Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy offered hours of testimony.

What have we learned?

Precious little.

We already knew what happened in Flint: In 2013, under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, the city joined a new regional water authority and changed its water source. The next year, with the new system still under construction, the city — still led by an emergency manager — began to draw its water from the Flint River. The local water treatment plant, with the approval of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, didn’t add corrosion-control chemicals to the water, allowing lead from aging service lines and pipes to leach into the city’s drinking water.

But we still don’t understand why it happened.  MDEQ claims it misunderstood the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which outlines the standard for water treatment, mistakenly interpreting the rule to indicate that corrosion control wasn’t necessary. When the EPA learned Flint wasn’t using corrosion control, it urged MDEQ to act, but didn’t issue an emergency order, or inform Flint residents that a disaster was unfolding, an omission McCarthy stubbornly refuses to call a mistake. When Snyder’s top aides discussed the Flint water crisis, news of the city’s most profound problems didn’t — Snyder claims — reach the governor’s desk.

It’s a chain of bungled decision-making that defies credulity.

At one particular tense moment in Thursday’s hearings, McCarthy, under stinging attacks from GOP lawmakers seeking her scalp, snapped at accusations her agency was derelict. Corrosion control is such standard practice, she insisted, that its lack in Flint remains incomprehensible.

But so, of course, is MDEQ’s failure to acknowledge warnings, pleas and scientific evidence that should have sounded a strong alarm, and the EPA’s failure to use its own statutory authority to intercede, or even alert residents to the hazardous water flowing from their taps — all the failures, at every level of government, that let this happen to a modern American city.

The biggest head-scratcher of all may be the Republican inquisitors’ conviction that this multifaceted government failure can somehow be mitigated, or prevented in the future, by eviscerating one federal agency. Flint didn’t need less government oversight; it needed better  oversight.

Maybe one day the GOP lawmakers bent on protecting Snyder and smearing McCarthy will take up the serious challenge of shoring up these regulatory shortcomings before more Americans are poisoned.

This editorial originally was published in the March 18, edition of the Detroit Free Press.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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