Rick Snyder Says A Water Crisis Like Flint's Could Happen Anywhere

The Michigan governor admits he blew it, but warns others could blow it without new regulations.
Rick Snyder has his eye on the underlying problem that caused the Flint water crisis. 
Rick Snyder has his eye on the underlying problem that caused the Flint water crisis. 

WASHINGTON -- Though Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) admits that his government caused the Flint water crisis, he told Congress on Thursday morning it's something that could happen anywhere that has lead pipes.

"The truth is, there are many communities with potentially dangerous lead problems," Snyder said in his testimony before the House Oversight Committee.

If the "dumb and dangerous" federal regulations of lead pipes don't change, Snyder said, "then this tragedy will befall other American cities."

Flint's water became poisonous in 2014 after Snyder's government oversaw a switch to the Flint River as the city's water source but failed to ensure its proper treatment.

"Not a day or night goes by that 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 said in his testimony. 

For nearly 18 months, Michigan officials dismissed Flint residents' complaints that their water looked and tasted bad, while also ignoring red flags raised by state officials. Snyder said he didn't figure it out until October, when the state finally told Flint residents not to drink from their taps because the lead levels in Flint kids' blood had shot up.

Small children exposed to lead -- even in small amounts -- can suffer permanent brain damage and behavioral problems. 

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee's top Democrat, excoriated the governor for his role in the crisis. 

"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 Synder's administration," Cummings said. "Gov. Snyder's administration caused this horrific disaster and poisoned the children of Flint."

Toward the end of the hearing, Cummings told Snyder he couldn't be trusted. "And I got to tell you, you need to resign," he said.

And Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) told Snyder he was "dripping with guilt" and that he should resign. 

Federal Safe Drinking Water Act regulations require public water systems to add chemicals that reduce the corrosiveness of drinking water, since corrosive water can leach lead from lead pipes -- but the state misread the regulations and the Environmental Protection Agency, the law's top enforcer, said last fall that the requirements were ambiguous.

Snyder's partner at the witness table was EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, whose testimony heaped almost all the blame for Flint on Snyder. 

"While EPA did not cause the lead problem, in hindsight, we should not have been so trusting of the state for so long when they provided us with overly simplistic assurances of technical compliance rather than substantive responses to our growing concerns," McCarthy said.

McCarthy's testimony drew some skepticism from both Republicans and Democrats on the oversight committee. At a Tuesday hearing featuring an EPA official who resigned amid Flint fallout, lawmakers criticized the agency for failing to act on warnings from one of its own scientists that Flint's water was unsafe. 

Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) repeated that criticism on Thursday and then some. 

"If you're going to do the courageous thing, you, too, should step down," he told McCarthy.

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) mocked Republicans for saying the EPA should have been more aggressive in Michigan, since many of them often lament agency interference on other issues.

"Republicans have been absolutely slamming the EPA for overreaching at every possible turn," Clay said. "Now they criticize the EPA for not doing more when Gov. Snyder fell down on the job."

In calling out Safe Drinking Water Act regulations, Snyder is aligning himself with outside experts who last year fought his government to expose the dangerous lead levels in Flint's water, including Flint pediatrician Mona Hannah-Attisha and Virginia Tech corrosion expert Marc Edwards. Both have called for federal regulations to change so that public water systems act more aggressively to replace lead pipes, which currently carry water to millions of homes across America. 

In testimony before the committee on Tuesday, Edwards said the EPA should apologize for its role in Flint so the agency can be "worthy of the public trust and its noble mission."