Above Photo: Flint resident Desiree Duell rests her head on the shoulder of her son David Henderson during the Flint hearing. Photograph: Jake May/AP
The Flint water crisis hearings were an exercise in blame, but there was little solace for those poisoned by lead
If there is to be justice for the people of Flint, it will not be found inside the halls of Congress. It will come from where it always does: the street. In Thursday’s hearings on the poisonings, residents sat in the audience of the hearing room looking to their coiffed representatives for answers, for redress of grievous harm. Amid all the decorum they did not see that they have more courage – and integrity – than those whose help they sought.
A seasoned ear may have heard the nuance, the faint drift among the many accusations leveled during the recent hearings. For the EPA, it was the state. For Michigan, it was the stark budget. For the former mayor, it was the emergency manager. For the Republicans it was President Obama’s EPA. For the Democrats, it was the Republican governor, his omnipotent managers. For all of them it was the cameras. It was the Colosseum. And for the residents of Flint, it was the Ides of March – the community got it in the back.
While waiting outside Tuesday’s hearing I asked an eight-year-old Flint boy why he was here: “I have lead poisoning. I could die.” These decent, unassuming mothers, fathers, grandparents and children had come to Congress seeking justice.
The cheers of hundreds of Flint residents who had travelled to Washington DC drowned out the chairman of the House oversight and government reform committee after he told Gina McCarthy she should resign. The people rose to their feet with chants of “No justice, no peace!” ringing through the halls of Congress.
Still, for justice to be fully realized, the energy and passion expressed by Flint residents on Capitol Hill on Thursday needs to be transformed and focused in a concerted effort to pressure Congress – and the president – to codify whistleblower protections and government managers’ personal accountability.
Central to the delivery of justice to the injured Flint community is accountability for governmental malfeasance. Under current law, EPA wrongdoers are protected by sovereign immunity. Unfortunately, for EPA whistleblower Miguel Del Toral, no such comprehensive protection exists to prevent his superiors from retaliating against and silencing him. Further, the harm inflicted on Flint residents is not subject to Tort remedies.
There is growing grassroots support for strengthening existing federal whistleblower protection law under the No Fear Act (Notification and Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation) of 2002 by removing sovereign immunity from federal managers and to subject them to personal liability for damages they inflict, including removing them from government service and severe penalties – including fines and incarceration.
This is all the more necessary as it is becoming painfully clear that the EPA, the state and the federal government prefer to play blame games than deliver justice.
An op-ed penned by the EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, before Tuesday’s second hearing panel presaged the agency’s motif: the blame was Michigan’s exclusively and, while regrettable, the agency had dismissed its Region 5 administrator, Susan Hedman, for her clumsy handling of the rogue state of Michigan. Her testimony before the House oversight and government reform committee adhered closely to this line. The agency had learned a hard lesson, but there would be no more Michigans if Gina McCarthy could help it.
Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, who had ignored the committee’s invitation to testify at the first panel, deigned to appear this time – only after having been, in Congressman Collins’s words, “hunted down” and threatened with being subpoenaed.
The governor pointed the finger at the EPA by pointing out that: “A water expert at the federal EPA, tried to raise an alarm in February 2015, and he was silenced … Inefficient, ineffective, and unaccountable bureaucrats at the EPA allowed this disaster to continue unnecessarily.” This was not by desire or design, it was the pernicious child of Michigan’s economic blight. The funding simply wasn’t there, the hundreds of millions of surplus dollars he had penuriously withheld from dispensing to the state’s ailing cities notwithstanding.
None of this squabbling helps the people of Flint. I met with five families who had driven 17 hours by car to make it the nation’s capital. They wanted to attend the congressional hearings in the People’s House. Amid the long polished halls, the stately wooden doors, the monuments engraved with thunderous inscriptions they were hoping against all odds to find justice – and hope – here.
Such are the whims of extremity, because the notion that their dreams are dead, their futures stunted, their expectations curt is too hard. Too final. Too cruel. It takes a lot for a mother to abandon hope. But if a solution is to be found, it won’t be here. It is in their own hands.