WASHINGTON -- Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday expressed remorse to Congress for the water crisis that has plagued the city of Flint since 2014, leaving many residents with health effects associated with exposure to lead.
"Let me be blunt: This was a failure of government at all levels -- local, state and federal officials. We all failed the families of Flint," Snyder told lawmakers on Capitol Hill at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.
"Not a day or night goes by when this tragedy doesn't weigh on my mind: The questions I should have asked, the answers I should have demanded, how I could have prevented this."
Snyder, who urged Congress to pass a bipartisan bill that would provide immediate aid to Flint, said he first learned that state experts were wrong about the water in Flint on Oct. 1, 2015 and took immediate action that day.
The governor said he is releasing his emails and staff emails related to the water crisis so that the public can have an "open, honest assessment of what happened and what we're doing to fix it."
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, the top Democrat on the panel, said in his opening remarks that if a CEO of a business ignored warnings about children being poisoned by its products, that there would be consequences.
"There is no doubt in my mind that if a corporate CEO did what Governor Snyder's administration has done, he would be hauled up on criminal charges," Cummings told the governor. "There will now be an entire generation of children who suffer from brain damage, learning disabilities and many other horrible effects of lead poisoning that were inflicted on them by Governor Snyder's administration."
Cummings said the governor should have done more to push back against state experts. The committee has obtained documents "showing that people all around the governor were sounding the alarms, but he either ignored them or didn't hear them," Cummings said, citing emails showing that Snyder's top legal adviser warned in October 2014 that Flint should "get back on the Detroit (water) system" as soon as possible "before this thing gets too far out of control."
The warning came a year before Snyder says he became aware of the lead contamination on Oct. 1, 2015.
"The governor's fingerprints are all over this" crisis, Cummings said. "His Department of Environmental Quality. His Department of Health and Human Services. His inner circle of top aides. His press staff. And of course the emergency managers the governor put in charge of Flint."
Snyder said he took immediate action after learning that Flint's water was contaminated nearly 18 months after the city began drawing its water from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. He reconnected the city with Detroit's water supply, distributed water filters and began testing residents - especially children - for elevated lead levels, Snyder said.
Ultimately, Snyder says, he wonders how he could have prevented the disaster.
"That's why I am so committed to delivering permanent, long-term solutions and the clean, safe drinking water that every Michigan citizen deserves," he said.
Snyder was a star witness at the hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The session is the second of two Flint-related hearings the panel is conducting this week and the third since February.
A busload of Flint residents traveled to Washington for the hearing.
"For the longest time, we were told we didn't matter -- what was happening to us did not matter," Melissa Mays told CBS News. "So we're seeing, you know, support from across the country and I think it's going to give us energy to keep the fight going."
Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy faulted state officials for the crisis, which occurred when Flint switched from the Detroit water system and began drawing from the Flint River to save money. The impoverished city was under state management at the time.
"The crisis we're seeing was the result of a state-appointed emergency manager deciding that the city would stop purchasing treated drinking water and instead switch to an untreated source to save money," McCarthy said. "The state of Michigan approved that decision, and did so without requiring corrosion control treatment. Without corrosion control, lead from pipes, fittings and fixtures can leach into the drinking water. These decisions resulted in Flint residents being exposed to dangerously high levels of lead."
Snyder asked to testify to Congress last month, bowing to demands by Democrats that he explain his role in a cost-cutting move that resulted in a public health emergency that has rocked Flint and caused ripples in the presidential campaign, where Democratic candidates have called for Snyder to step down.
A state investigation has "uncovered systemic failures at the Michigan" Department of Environmental Quality, Snyder says. "The fact is, bureaucrats created a culture that valued technical compliance over common sense - and the result was that lead was leaching into residents' water."
In response to the crisis, the state has approved $67 million in emergency spending, with a request for $165 million more, Snyder said. The governor called for Congress to approve a bipartisan bill that would spend $220 million to fix and replace lead-contaminated pipes in Flint and other cities. Senators from both parties have reached a tentative agreement, but the bill remains on hold amid objections by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the Oversight panel, said officials "need to understand how the system failed the residents of Flint so badly. But more importantly, we need to understand what is being done to fix the problem and help the people of Flint recover from this tragedy."