Flint Was Not the First: A Look at the History of the EPA & Why We Should Have Predicted Flint

Flint Was Not the First: A Look at the History of the EPA & Why We Should Have Predicted Flint
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The following article is based off of the hearing embedded above, courtesy of C-Span.

On March 15th 2016, I was able to attend the second hearing on the Flint Michigan hearings while on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. As I walked into a room separate from the venue in which the hearing was actually happening, I did not know what to expect. I had heard that hearings could be quite dull - mostly bills and dockets being thrown back and forth as fingers were pointed. I arrived on The Hill as those testifying were being sworn in. As soon as former Head of the EPA Susan Hedman began her testimony surrounding the issues of water cleanliness, however, my attention was secured.

There were four people who testified: Ms. Hedman, the former head of the EPA; Mr. Darnell Earley, former emergency manager to Flint; Mr. Dayne Walling, former Mayor of Flint; and lastly, Mr. Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech. As Mr.Edwards closed the opening statements, I found myself thinking about the Flint issue much differently than when I first walked into the room.

Ms.Hedman testified exactly how one would expect; In apology for the actions, while still defending the EPA. In an emotional speech that ended in tears, she explained the ways in which her hands were tied before, during and after the crisis. In June of 2015, she learned that corrosion was prominent in the drinking water in Flint. The EPA then understood that they had to do something for the residents of Flint, she recounts, and they proposed policies to implement erosion control. Despite the repeated efforts to work with the local government in Flint, the advice of the EPA was not being taken. While this is an abridged version of the rambling testimony given by Ms.Hedman, the point remains the same: the EPA knew there was a problem. They talked to the people they were supposed to, made the recommendations they needed to, and no one would listen. Deaf ears were not a battle they knew how to fight. Mr.Edwards, however, along with many Flint residents, did not buy this argument.

Edwards began his testimony by cutting straight to the point, stating that the EPA willingly turned a blind eye to the crisis in Flint. The Flint water crisis, in his words, was a "man-made disaster." While Ms.Hedman scrambled to explain the ways in which the incidents were not her fault in this instance, Edwards opened the case much wider, referring to disasters from nearly a decade ago in which the EPA engaged in willful negligence. He pointed specifically to the crisis in Washington, D.C. in 2004 in which the water conditions were drastically worse than that in Flint. As Hedman tried to turn the blame away from herself in the case of Flint, however her story continued to weaken as Edwards was able to bring to light the ways in which this was not the first time the EPA's integrity was being questioned.

I will admit that I had mostly bought into the testimony of Ms.Hedman before Mr.Edwards came up to speak. Simply put, she did all that she could and she couldn't control the reactions of those who wouldn't listen. She lost me, however, and a lot of her audience, when she finished off her testimony by explaining why she decided to step down as the head of the EPA. Feeling similarly to Edwards, the residents of Flint and beyond had very little sympathy for Hedman. The fact that she "tried her best" did not change the fact that they still had toxic drinking water. Hedman stepped down because it was the "right thing to do," stating that while she believed that there was nothing else she could have done, that she still felt responsible because the crisis happened on her watch. She also said time and time again that the EPA was not at fault, however. Her story only got weaker as she continued to speak.

As one might imagine, there was no hope for the members of the Flint government. Edwards, along with the state representatives who questioned those testifying harped that the Flint water crisis was not simply a mistake. There was too much evidence had been brought forward at all points in the process for this crisis to be treated as unavoidable. As the witnesses testified, it was practically a tennis match, with people volleying the blame back and forth. Mr. Edwards solidified that this was not a mistake by constantly reiterating that this was not the first time this incident that happened. The Environmental Protection Agency has one job and that is to protect people of environmental crimes. Having undrinkable water is a basic human right, and if the EPA was unable to complete this task and they had failed at completing their job.

When I first heard Mr. Edwards testimony, I thought that he was being inflammatory. However, after making stating that it was only a matter of time before "a Flint" happened, I understand that his testimony was a long time coming. History repeats itself, and the head of the EPA may have had a leg to stand on if the past decade was not decorated with mishandling of water quality issues. The witnesses representing the city of Flint were shameful and careless, and ultimately the Flint water crisis was an act of willful negligence and nothing more. To close, I will leave readers with this scathing quote from Mr.Edwards directed at Ms.Hedman: "I guess being government agency means never having to say you're sorry."

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