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​Blame game as Flint water woes reach U.S. Congress

Brown water flows from a faucet in Flint, Michigan in this undated photo.

WWJ

WASHINGTON -- Government officials fought on Wednesday over who was to blame for the water crisis in the city of Flint, Michigan, at a combative congressional hearing that also pitted Democrats against Republicans.

Joel Beauvais, acting water chief for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Michigan officials ignored federal advice to treat Flint water for corrosion-causing elements last year and delayed for months before telling the public in the city, about 60 miles northwest of Detroit, about the health risks of lead-contaminated water.

"What happened in Flint was avoidable and never should have happened," Beauvais said.

EPA's Midwest regional office urged Michigan's environmental agency to address the lack of corrosion control in Flint's water, "but was met with resistance," Beauvais told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "The delays in implementing the actions needed to treat the drinking water and in informing the public of ongoing health risks raise very serious concerns."

Countering the Obama administration official, Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, acknowledged that the state should have required Flint to treat its water, but said the EPA "did not display the sense of urgency that the situation demanded," allowing the problem to fester for months.

Creagh apologized for the state's role in the water crisis, but said, "in retrospect, government at all levels should have done more."

The hearing was the first on Capitol Hill since the lead contamination crisis in Flint made national news last year, and frustrated Democrats complained that the Republican-led committee didn't ask the state's Republican governor to explain what happened.

Flint is under a public health emergency after its drinking water became tainted when the city switched from the Detroit system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. The city was under state management at the time.

Water was not properly treated to keep lead from pipes from leaching into the supply. Some children's blood has tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has apologized repeatedly for the state's role in the crisis. Snyder and state legislators have enacted $37 million in emergency Flint funding for the current fiscal year. Snyder is expected to propose an additional $30 million in state funding to help Flint residents pay their water bills, CBS affiliate WWJ reported.

The crisis has taken on partisan overtones, as Democrats blame the Republican governor and some Republicans target the EPA for failing to intervene sooner.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the oversight panel, said EPA should have acted on its own to warn the public about water problems in Flint.

"Why didn't EPA tell the public they're poisoning their kids if they drink the water?" he asked Beauvais, adding that EPA knew about potential health risks for nearly a year before making the results public.

"What good are EPA if they don't tell kids" about lead in the water, Chaffetz shouted.

Democrats were equally adamant that the state was to blame.

"Can anybody tell me why Gov. Snyder is not here today?" asked Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Democrat, "Because he's hiding, that's why," Cartwight added, answering his own question.

Chaffetz did not call Snyder to testify.

WWJ reported Chaffetz subpoenaed Darnell Earley, who was state-appointed emergency manager for Flint when its water source was switched, but he has refused to testify.

"On Tuesday, I issued a subpoena," he said. "Normally these are done electronically with a council of record. His attorney refused service."

Chaffetz is now asking a higher power to step in and force Earley to give a deposition, testimony under oath, sometime before the end of the month.

"We're calling on the U.S. Marshals to hunt him down and give him that subpoena," said Chaffetz.

If Earley refuses to testify, he could face up to a year in federal prison, according to WWJ legal analyst Charlie Langton.

"It is unusual because most of the time you just take a subpoena, you know you have to testify and you just go and testify. But for whatever reason, Earley's not cooperating," said Langton. "I can't imagine why he wouldn't do this. If I was representing him, I would say 'Mr. Earley, you get your you know what down to that congressional testimony and say what you know.'"

Earley is currently the Detroit schools emergency manager, and has come under fire from local teachers over poor school conditions.

The oversight hearing comes as the FBI said it is working with a multi-agency team investigating the lead contamination in Flint.

FBI spokeswoman Jill Washburn told WWJ the agency is "investigating the matter to determine if there have been any federal violations." Officials haven't said whether criminal or civil charges might follow the investigation.

Several local, state and federal officials have resigned since doctors revealed last year that using the Flint River for the city's drinking water supply caused elevated levels of lead in some children's blood. Lead contamination has been linked to learning disabilities and other problems. Michigan's governor has apologized repeatedly for the state's role.

In addition to the FBI and the EPA, the federal team includes the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Gina Balaya, a U.S. attorney's spokeswoman in Detroit, told WWJ.

In November, the EPA announced it was auditing how Michigan enforces drinking water rules and said it would identify how to strengthen state oversight. The U.S. attorney's office in Detroit said in January that it was investigating the water crisis with the EPA.

An independent panel appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has determined that the state Department of Environmental Quality was primarily responsible for the water contamination. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission also plans to hold hearings to explore whether the civil rights of Flint residents were violated.

On Tuesday, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver told reporters she wants lead pipes removed from the city's water distribution system as soon as possible. Weaver proposed starting the pipe-removal process at the "highest-risk homes of kids under 6 and pregnant women."