There was plenty of finger-pointing at the House Oversight hearing on Flint’s water crisis Wednesday. But without testimony from any city, state or federal employees who were actually involved in the series of bad decisions that led to the contamination of the city’s drinking water, the hearing didn’t result in any real declaration of culpability beyond the general consensus that, as U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said, “This is a failing at every level.”
On display, however, was the inarguable heroism of a few individuals who, despite numerous barriers within the system, were responsible for bringing Flint’s water crisis to light.
At the center of this effort was LeeAnne Walters, a Flint resident and mother of four who was forced to become an amateur water expert after her concerns about the safety of her family’s drinking water were dismissed. It was ultimately Walters’ persistence that sparked the chain of independent research and whistleblowing that brought national attention to the disaster.
Walters was added to the witness list late Tuesday, after former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley refused to answer a subpoena from the committee.
All the members of Walters’ household, including her 3-year-old twin boys, 14-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter, suffered from a host of unusual ailments, including skin rashes, stomach aches and hair loss for several months following the switch of the city’s water supply from Detroit’s municipal system to the Flint river in April 2014. But it wasn’t until February 2015, after Walters’ persistent complaints and participation in protests alongside other Flint residents outside City Hall, that a city employee was sent to test the water at Walters’ home.
The city’s test found that the level of lead in the Walters’ water measured 400 parts per billion. While the Environmental Protection Agency considers any level of lead in drinking water to be unsafe, a maximum of 15 ppb is legally permitted. After having confirmed that the Walters family’s drinking water contained nearly 27 times the legal amount of lead, the Flint water department merely warned Walters to shield her children from the water and supplied the family with water from a neighbor’s house via a garden hose, blaming the plumbing in Walters’ house for the lead contamination.
After test results confirmed that all four of her children had been exposed to lead and one, 3-year-old Gavin, had actual lead poisoning, Walters decided to take her concerns up the ladder, to the EPA.
By February 2015, Miguel Del Toral, regulations manager for the groundwater and drinking water branch of the EPA’s Region 5, which includes Michigan, had identified the “absence of corrosion control treatment in the City of Flint for mitigating lead ... in the drinking water” as a “major concern from a public health standpoint.”
“Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water, which is to be expected in a public water system that is not providing corrosion control treatment,” Del Toral wrote in an internal memo issued in June to several employees of the EPA as well as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. (PDF) “The lack of any mitigating treatment for lead is a serious concern for residents that live in homes with lead service lines or partial lead service lines, which are common throughout the city of Flint.”
Del Toral noted that the elevated lead levels found in the samples of drinking water the city of Flint had collected from Leanne Walters’ house were “especially alarming” given that the city, under the instruction of the MDEQ, was using the practice of preflushing the taps before collecting water samples.
This practice, Del Toral wrote, “has been shown to result in the minimization of lead capture and significant underestimation of lead levels in the drinking water,” and “could provide a false sense of security to the residents of Flint regarding lead levels in the water and may result in residents not taking the necessary precautions to protect their families from lead in the drinking water.”
'We cannot guarantee at this point in time that the water is safe to drink’ MDEQ’s Keith Creagh at House hearing on @FlintWaterCrisis— Caitlin Dickson (@CEDickson) February 3, 2016
After being told by the MDEQ that Walters’ plumbing was responsible for the lead, Del Toral visited Walters’ home on April 27 and again on May 6 and determined that “except for a few minor metallic connectors, all interior plumbing, including the pipes, valves and connectors are made of plastic certified by the National Sanitation Foundation for use in drinking water applications.” In other words, the contamination originated with the city’s pipes, not in her house.
Del Toral had also alerted Virginia Tech civil engineering professor and lead corrosion expert Marc Edwards to Walters’ situation. Edwards asked Walters to send him new water samples from her house, but this time he instructed her not to preflush the pipes. The lead concentration Edwards found in those samples was 13,200 ppb — double the amount the EPA considers toxic waste.
These frightening results prompted Edwards to assemble a field team of researchers from Virginia Tech to conduct more tests on the lead levels in Flint’s drinking water. Meanwhile, Del Toral provided Walters with a copy of his report, at her request, which she then leaked to the ACLU of Michigan. In July, after the final version of Del Toral's memo, issued in June, did not appear to motivate any action from the EPA or the MDEQ, the American Civil Liberties Union published the memo online.
In September, Edwards began releasing the results of his team’s research, which found significant levels of lead in Flint’s water supply. Around the same time, Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha—who’d been prompted by the leaked memo to do some tests of her own—reported elevated blood lead levels among young children in Flint since the switch of the city’s water supply.
Finally, in October 2015, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder ordered Flint to stop getting its water from the river and return to the Detroit water system. It wasn’t until November that EPA Region 5 administrator Susan Hedman announced the federal agency would be conducting an audit of Michigan’s drinking water program “to ensure that MDEQ maintains reliable drinking water supplies that meet all of the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
Hedman, who effectively resigned from her position with the EPA this week, later admitted to knowing about the problems with Flint’s water as early as April and has been accused of silencing Del Toral and acting to suppress his memo.
After the memo was published by the ACLU in June, Walters said at Wednesday’s hearing, Del Toral “was not allowed to have contact with me or anyone else in Flint.”
Del Toral was invited to testify at the hearing, but according to the Detroit News, the EPA could not spare him.
“Miguel is a valued member of this team,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said in Flint Tuesday. “He is working here in the city. He wants to continue to do that, because he is one of our lead people. He is training a lot of the folks, so I don’t believe he is planning on testifying tomorrow.”
Despite his absence, the members of the House Oversight Committee praised Del Toral for his work, as did Edwards and Walters.
“Had it not been for people completely outside the system, those children in Flint would still be drinking that water to this day,” said Edwards. “That’s a fact.”
Though her family stopped drinking Flint water in November 2014, Walters said her children are still dealing with health issues. The one with lead poisoning, she said, has a compromised immune system, anemia, speech issues, and has gained only 3.5 pounds in the last year.
During her testimony, Walters called for the replacement of the entire Flint water system at no cost to residents, a refund for all the water bills paid by Flint residents since the switch to the contaminated Flint river water, an independent investigation of the Governor’s office and other state agencies potentially at fault, and the establishment of a health care program to provide Flint residents with treatment for lead poisoning.
Above all, Walters told the committee, “I urge you to help restore some of the trust lost.”