(CNSNews.com) – Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday that he trusted the guidance he received from then EPA regional administrator Susan Hedman that the high levels of lead in the water in Flint, Mich., were “limited to very particular cases” of lead service lines and plumbing in individual houses.
“So Mr. Walling, you went on television in July of 2015 and told everybody that it was safe to drink the water. Did you just do that on your own or who told you that that was a viable thing to say?” Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) asked Walling.
Walling said the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) “repeatedly” offered him assurances that the water in Flint was safe to drink.
“The MDQ had repeatedly provided assurances—when we heard over and over again in our technical advisory meetings discussions with staff – that the water was meeting the standards, that it was safe to drink,” Walling said.
When asked whether he had a discussion with the EPA, Walling said that he spoke with then EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman, after a memo from EPA Region 5 Regulations Manager Miguel Del Toral advocating for the EPA to take action in Flint had been provided to him. Hedman resigned from her position at the EPA in January.
“And it was explained to me that that memo was under review, that the scope of the problem was being assessed, and my understanding at the time was this was limited to very particular cases, because of what was there for lead service lines, and plumbing in individual houses,” Walling said.
“Mr. Edwards, what’s your take on that?” Chaffetz asked Marc Edwards, a Flint Water Interagency coordinating committee member.
“The email’s very clear from Ms. Hedman that she apologized for Mr. Del Toral’s memo and Mr. Walling asked her if there was anything that should be of concern to Flint residents, and she said frankly no,” Edwards replied.
“Ms. Hedman, why’d you do that?” Chaffetz asked.
“I didn’t apologize for the memo. I apologized for taking all day to get back to the mayor, and that is because I was out of the office for a medical procedure, and in fact, during the entire time period that Dr. Edwards imagines I was covering up data and silencing scientists, I was actually out of the office. I did not return until July 13th, Hedman said, adding that her deputy was in charge of the office during that time period.
“So Mr. Edwards, this memo from Mr. Del Toral is pretty comprehensive, is it not? Does it tackle the issue? Does it inform them as to the health of this water?” Chaffetz asked.
“Yes, it points out that Flint’s not being protected by federal law and that public health is in danger,” Edwards explained.
“When should that information have been released?” Chaffetz asked.
“Had EPA just stayed silent and not apologized for the memo to Mr. Walling and told Mr. Walling that Mr. Del Toral was accurate in what he said, I doubt Mr. Walling would have gone on TV to drink the water and tell Flint residents it was safe,” Edwards responded.
“Is that true Mr. Walling? Were you talked out of it? I mean the memo comes out. You’re getting inquiries from news organizations - the ACLU and others - saying, hey, what are you doing about this, and you go on television and say it’s safe,” Chaffetz said.
“I did trust the guidance that I was receiving, and that’s what I regret in this looking back, but I deliberately reached out. I asked the White House Office Intergovernmental affairs for a point of contact in the EPA,” the former mayor said.
“This is while the city of Flint was still under emergency manager, because I wanted to double check on what we were hearing from the state regulators, and when we’re hearing essentially the same thing from the state and the federal regulators, then I relied on that information,” Walling added.
Walling said the White House directed him to Hedmon.
“How long did it take before the EPA finally confirmed, came back and said, yeah, that Del Toral report is accurate? They didn’t, did they? They never did. That’s the point. If you left office, you were there for months and months and months, and they never did come back and actually confirm it. Mr. Edwards, is that correct?” Chaffetz said.
“That’s correct,” Edwards said.
“Ms. Hedman, you were in office. You were there being paid by taxpayers until January, late January of 2016. Why did it take you so long?” Chaffetz asked.
“Mr. Del Toral’s memo actually dealt with lead at one residence and two neighboring residences, and the conclusion of the final version of his memo was that the problem had been caused by physical disturbance of a lead service line and that it was particular to that household,” Hedman responded.
“Mr. Edwards, this is not a report about one house, was it?” Chaffetz said.
“Mr. Del Toral clearly pointed out that Flint was not being protected by federal corrosion control laws period and that the public health of an entire city was in danger,” said Edwards.
“This is where you’re fundamentally and totally wrong Ms. Hedman, and if you don’t recognize that now. We’re in mid-March 2016, and you still don’t get it. You still don’t get it, and neither does the EPA administrator. You screwed up, and you messed up people’s lives,” Chaffetz said, which prompted applause from the audience.
“Mr. Del Toral was just one of several people at Region 5 who were concerned about the failure to implement corrosion control and had been communicating to MDEQ at higher and higher levels of EPA management,” Hedman responded.
“This information was out there publicly. It had been released. You didn’t like it, did you? Did Mr. Del Toral, if somebody released that report, did he do the right thing or not do the right thing?” Chaffetz asked.
“I don’t believe he released the report. I think we need to be clear that—“ Hedman said.
“Was that the right thing for that report to go public?” Chaffetz asked.
“There were three reasons why EPA could not release that report,” Hedman responded.
“What were those?” Chaffetz asked.
Hedman said the memo “contained personally identifiable information - health information - and that kind of information is not something that we could release, and so before a report is released, that is typically redacted by our office of regional counsel.”
“So a black pen would take 10 seconds or so?” Chaffetz asked.
“Right, and secondly, the material in the report included enforcement sensitive information, and we do not release that to the targets or to the general public. Again, that would have been a redaction issue,” Hedman said.
“Additionally, there was data in the report that we neither collected nor analyzed, and it needed to go through a kind of standard QAQC. I directed that be done as soon as possible. It was my expectation that the report could be finalized and put in a form that could be publicly released before the reporter had to file his story. That was my expectation at the time,” she said.
“And it took seven months. Mr. Edwards, your reaction to her comments?” Chaffetz asked.
“I’m just in disbelief,” Edwards responded.