By Abby Goodnough, nytimes.com
Time and again, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan acknowledged in a tense congressional hearing Thursday that he had been aware of complaints about the drinking water in Flint, including from news reports his aides had emailed him. Yet he had accepted assurances, he said, that the problems were not severe.
Democrats listening to his testimony were dubious. “Governor Snyder, plausible deniability only works when it’s plausible,” said Representative Matt Cartwright, Democrat of Pennsylvania. “You were not in a medically induced coma for a year.”
The rebuke was one of the more caustic in an extraordinary turn on Capitol Hill: A sitting Republican governor appearing before a Republican-led congressional panel, answering wave after wave of questions about his administration’s role in the Flint water crisis — “the most glaring failure of government since Hurricane Katrina,” as Representative Brendan Boyle, another Pennsylvania Democrat, described it.
Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, also came under fire, pressured by Republicans to accept responsibility for the lead contamination of Flint’s water supply and sometimes shouted down as she deflected blame onto the State of Michigan.
Both officials were repeatedly called on to resign, with Mr. Boyle saying it was Mr. Snyder’s “moral responsibility.” Over and over, Ms. McCarthy was admonished, “You just don’t get it.”
In addition to the hearing, there are a series of investigations — criminal and administrative — into how the water supply for a city of nearly 100,000 people became tainted with lead, a crisis that was not acknowledged for months. But in a strange political reversal, Republicans who usually champion local rule cast most of their blame on the E.P.A., saying the federal agency bore at least as much responsibility as the state for keeping Flint’s residents safe.
Democrats who champion the role of the federal government blamed the Snyder administration, and focused on the questions: What did Mr. Snyder know and when did he know it?
“I kick myself every day,” Mr. Snyder said repeatedly as he testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, saying his mistake was trusting employees — “career bureaucrats, ” he dryly called them, and “so-called experts” — who consistently misinformed him that the city’s water was safe.
The water contamination in Flint and the failings of government officials at all levels have cast a spotlight on water safety around the country and the problems that come with aging lead pipes. The state’s response has also become an issue in the presidential campaign, with Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton calling on Mr. Snyder to step down.
Mr. Snyder said at the hearing, as he has before, that he did not learn that Flint’s water had dangerous levels of lead until Oct. 1, after a local pediatrician went public with findings that the number of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood had risen alarmingly since the city changed its water supply the previous year. And he repeated that he did not learn about a spike in Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area until January, even though some county and state officials knew of it much earlier.
Mr. Snyder also took shots at the E.P.A., which learned in April 2015 — a year after Flint switched to a new water source, the Flint River — that the city was not adding a chemical that would prevent its pipes from corroding and leaching lead.
He pointed to emails suggesting that E.P.A. employees in the regional office in charge of Michigan were complicit with employees of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in keeping concerns about lead and lack of corrosion control quiet for months.
“They were in regular dialogue,” he said of federal and state environmental officials. “We needed urgency, we needed action,” but they kept on talking, he said.
Republicans have long targeted the E.P.A. as a source of government incompetence and overreach. Ms. McCarthy, conceded that her agency had not responded quickly or forcefully enough when it learned that Flint had not taken the necessary corrosion control steps. But she said the E.P.A. had been fooled and foiled by the same state employees who misled Mr. Snyder.
Much to the vexation of Republicans on the panel, she repeatedly refused to say the E.P.A. had failed, or that anyone in the agency should have been fired — including the regional administrator overseeing Michigan, Susan Hedman, who later quit after questions were raised about the handling of a whistle-blower, Miguel Del Toral, whose warnings about lead were not acted aggressively on and who later complained that he was punished for his actions.
She also refused to say whether the outcome would have been different if the federal law setting standards for safe drinking water had been clearer.
“I wish we had gone farther, I wish we had yelled from the treetops,” Ms. McCarthy told the committee. “But there is no way my agency created this problem.”
Few new facts emerged from the four-hour hearing, nor did any minds appear to be changed about culpability. Perhaps most striking was that despite the partisan tone, Republicans sprinkled at least some criticism on Mr. Snyder, while Democrats chastised the E.P.A. for not responding more forcefully when it learned Flint had not added corrosion controls after switching to the river water.
“The state has a big part of this blame, I’m not trying to excuse them whatsoever,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who is the chairman of the committee, although he spent most of his allotted time trying to force an unyielding Ms. McCarthy to acknowledge she had “screwed up.”
Flint residents who attended the hearing — many of whom had traveled overnight by bus to get there — left shrugging their shoulders, unsure what to take from it.
“I didn’t start off with a lot of high hopes,” said Melissa Mays, a resident who is a lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the Snyder administration. “It’s a little more fire for everybody back home, because for the longest time we felt like we didn’t have a voice, we didn’t matter, nobody cared. And now we’re watching people care about what’s been happening.”
After the hearing, Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, said he remained determined to interview 15 current and former members of the Snyder administration who had so far rejected his invitation to do so. In particular, Mr. Cummings said he wished to speak with Dennis Muchmore, Mr. Snyder’s former chief of staff, who raised regular alarms about Flint’s water problems last year in emails released by the governor’s office.
“It doesn’t end here,” said Mr. Cummings, who was among those calling for Mr. Snyder’s resignation at the hearing.
Mr. Chaffetz deflected reporters’ questions about whether he would use his subpoena power to bring Mr. Muchmore before the committee.
The day brought other headaches for Mr. Snyder: Standard & Poor’s lowered the outlook on Michigan’s credit rating to stable from positive, citing the costs of dealing with the Flint crisis, and also with a looming financial crisis affecting Detroit public schools.
At the hearing, Democrats frequently made reference to Flint children who have been exposed to lead in their drinking water, and in one of the final exchanges of the hearing, Mr. Cummings asked Mr. Snyder what those children were supposed to learn from the government failures.
“It’s one of the terrible parts of all of this,” Mr. Snyder replied. “There’s a question of trust in government, and there’s good reason for them to ask that question. And that’s going to take a huge amount of time to earn back, if it can be earned back.”