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Former EPA Official Defends Actions on Flint Water Crisis

The former EPA official who resigned as the Flint, Michigan water crisis worsened came under withering criticism in Congress Tuesday as she defended the agency's actions.

The former Environmental Protection Agency official who resigned as the Flint, Michigan water crisis worsened came under withering criticism in Congress Tuesday as she defended the agency's actions to deal with the lead contamination.

Susan Hedman told a congressional panel that she first learned that Flint was not implementing corrosion control treatment in late June 2015. That was about 14 months after the city started using Flint River water that was not treated with orthophosphate — a chemical used for corrosion control, she says.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who helped expose the lead problem in Flint's water and is now assisting both the city and state, accused Hedman and the EPA of "willful blindness" and for being unrepentant and unremorseful in the aftermath of the crisis.

Related: Flint Finally Suspends Water Utility Billing Amid Lead Crisis

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said there was plenty of blame to go around. But he directed his sharpest criticism at the EPA. He said the agency didn't take definitive action until January.

Hedman's resignation "doesn't heal the sick and ease the suffering of the residents of Flint," Chaffetz said.

Choking up, Hedman said that although she has left government service she has not stopped thinking about the people of Flint.

EPA responded within the "cooperative federalism framework" of the Safe Drinking Water Act, Hedman testified, which assigns states the legal authority to implement drinking water regulations. She says that EPA's enforcement options under the law are more constrained than in other federal environmental statutes.

"And, while I used the threat of enforcement action to motivate the state and city to move forward, we found that the enforcement options available to us were of limited utility last fall, due to the unique circumstances of this case," she told the committee.

Hedman, the former director of the EPA's Midwest regional office, resigned Feb. 1. She says she resigned because of "false allegations" that portrayed her as sitting on the sidelines during the crisis and that she "downplayed concerns raised by an EPA scientist about lead in the water."

Related: Michigan Aide Wanted Environmental Director to Stay, Even After Flint

Flint switched its water source from Detroit's water system to the Flint River in 2014 to save money, but the river water was not treated properly and lead from aging pipes leached into Flint homes and businesses. Elevated levels of lead have been found in children's blood, with lead contamination linked to learning disabilities and other problems.

The chain of events has spurred calls for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to resign amid outrage over the treatment of the people of Flint, a predominantly African-American city. A recall effort is under way in Michigan for Snyder, who has been widely blamed for the crisis.

The governor is scheduled to appear before the committee on Thursday, along with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The state-appointed emergency manager who oversaw the city when its water source was switched to the Flint River says he was "grossly misled" by state and federal experts who never told him that lead was leaching into the city's water supply.

Darnell Earley said that he was overwhelmed by challenges facing the impoverished city and relied on experts from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to advise him.

Earley told the committee that he and other Flint leaders "were all totally dependent" on analysis and expertise provided by state and federal officials, Earley testified, adding that "it would have been unreasonable ... to reject their guidance and attempt to make independent rulings on a highly sophisticated and scientific subject matter."

For months after the April 2014 switch he believed information he was receiving — parts of it scientifically complex — was accurate, Earley told the committee. But in hindsight he said he should have done more to challenge the experts who told him Flint's water problems were harmless to human health and geographically limited in nature.

Image: Water faucet filters are distributed to Flint residents at a distribution center in a fire station in Flint
Water faucet filters are distributed to Flint residents at a distribution center in a fire station in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Tuesday it was joining a criminal investigation of lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, exploring whether laws were broken in a crisis that has captured international attention. Picture taken January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca CookREBECCA COOK / Reuters

Earley said that knowing he was misled doesn't ease the difficulty of what happened. "I am very deeply hurt by what happened on my watch in Flint," he said.

Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling blamed the crisis on the state of Michigan's focus on balancing the city's books and "choosing low cost over human consequences."

Related: Seven Lead-Poisoned Families File Flint Class Action Lawsuit

Walling also faulted the state's emergency manager law, which placed Flint effectively under state control since November 2011. The law "takes away the natural checks and balances" of democratic government and "minimizes the voices of the citizens by placing control so far away from the community," Walling said.

The five emergency managers who have run Flint were all appointed by and reported to the Republican governor, Walling said, as did the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Earley took over as emergency manager in Flint in October 2013 — seven months after the Flint City Council approved the water switch and former emergency manager Edward Kurtz signed it.

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