"There's a Jim Jones in Michigan": Lawmaker Likens Flint Crisis to Cult Leader Who Poisoned Members

February 04, 2016
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Congress held its first hearing Wednesday on lead poisoning in Flint’s water supply. The crisis began after an unelected emergency manager appointed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder switched the source of Flint’s drinking water to the corrosive Flint River. Flint’s former emergency manager, Darnell Earley, refused to testify at the hearing, despite a subpoena. On Tuesday, he announced he was resigning from his current position as emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. Republican Congressmember Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chair of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which convened the hearing, said of Earley that he would direct U.S. marshals to "hunt him down" and serve him with a subpoena. We play highlights from the hearing, including Flint resident LeeAnne Walters, who was one of the first to sound the alarm about lead contamination in the water. "Despite the evidence and the fact that my son had lead poisoning, the city and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality still continued to tell everyone that the water was safe," Walters said. Congressmember Sheila Jackson Lee raised the specter of a 1970s cult leader who led the mass murder-suicide of his more than 900 followers, nearly 300 of them children. "There is a Jim Jones in Michigan, who gave a poisoned concoction to children and their families," Lee said.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the ongoing investigation into the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. Congress held its first hearing Wednesday on lead poisoning in Flint’s water supply. The crisis began after an unelected emergency manager appointed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder switched the source of Flint’s drinking water to the corrosive Flint River.

Flint’s former emergency manager, Darnell Earley, refused to testify at yesterday’s hearing, despite a subpoena. On Tuesday, Earley announced he was resigning from his current position as emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chair of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which convened the hearing, said of Earley that he would direct U.S. marshals to, quote, "hunt him down" and serve him with a subpoena.

Among those who did testify were Keith Creagh, Snyder’s handpicked appointee to run the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, or MDEQ, and Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water. Beauvais faced tough questioning from Congressman Chaffetz.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: It’s important for the EPA to tell the public that they’re poisoning their kids if they drink the water!

JOEL BEAUVAIS: I absolutely agree. And—

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: Then why didn’t they do it? They sat on that for almost a year.

JOEL BEAUVAIS: Administrator McCarthy issued an elevation policy this January, emphasizing—

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: This January! They had it for nearly a year! The EPA administrator went to Flint yesterday! The EPA first went to her home in February—of last year! Why did it take a year?

JOEL BEAUVAIS: I can’t answer that question. All I can say is that they were working with the—

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: Then why don’t we fire the whole lot of them? What good is the EPA if they’re not going to do that? If you’re not going to tell the citizens—my daughter, OK, she’s getting married—I get emotional about that. She’s moving to Michigan. Are you telling me that the EPA, knowing that they’re putting lead in the—there’s lead in the water—that they’re not going to tell those kids? Because that’s exactly what happened.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The poisoning began in April 2014 after Darnell Earley, Flint’s fourth emergency manager, switched Flint’s water source to the long-polluted Flint River in a bid to save money. For over a year, Flint residents complained about the quality of the water, but their cries were ignored. Early last year—and maybe earlier—the government knew of tests showing alarming levels of lead in the water, but officials told residents there was no threat.

Flint resident LeeAnne Walters was one of the first to sound the alarm about lead contamination in the water. She testified at Wednesday’s hearing.

LEEANNE WALTERS: I started doing independent testing with Virginia Tech, and 30 tests were done, tests that were performed in accordance to the LCR. My average was 2,500 parts per billion. My highest was 13,500 parts per billion. Hazardous waste is 5,000. Regardless of this information and the fact that my son had lead poisoning, the city and the MDEQ still continued to tell everyone the water was safe, as the EPA sat by and watched in silence.

AMY GOODMAN: The EPA’s silence was not for lack of effort, at least on the part of one official. EPA employee Miguel Del Toral, alarmed by the amount of lead he found in LeeAnne Walters’ water, issued a memo to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality warning about lead contamination, a memo that Walters made public. Del Toral was taken off the case by his EPA superior, who has since been forced to resign. Walters then teamed up with Virginia Tech scientist Marc Edwards. Testing on the more than 300 samples they collected from Flint’s residents revealed Flint’s water supply was unsafe.

As lawmakers questioned MDEQ and EPA officials about compliance with standards established by the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Lead and Copper Rule, the concealing of information and the failure to notify residents of a public health emergency, the committee also attempted to uncover what agency or individual was ultimately responsible for the decision to switch Flint’s water supply. Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, questioned MDEQ chief Keith Creagh about an oft-repeated assertion that Flint’s City Council ordered the switch.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS: We’ve received—we’ve reviewed the resolution passed by the City Council and the minutes from the meeting. At no point during the meeting did the City Council vote to allow the Flint River to be used for drinking water. Isn’t that correct, Mr. Creagh?

KEITH CREAGH: I haven’t reviewed those personally, but that’s my understanding.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Mr. Chairman, I would like to introduce into the record a letter we just received yesterday from Sheldon A. Neeley, who served on the City Council from 2005 to 2014. He was actually there. He was there, Mr. Creagh. In his letter, Mr. Neeley explains that the City Council did not make the decision to use the Flint River because, quote, "The Flint City Council had no power to actually enact any laws for the community. Everything went through the emergency manager," end of quote.

AMY GOODMAN: Flint has been under emergency management since 2011, when Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed the first of what would be four emergency managers to deal with Flint’s financial crisis. The fourth emergency manager appointed by Snyder, Darnell Earley, decided to save $5 million by switching to the Flint River as the city’s water source. It had used the Detroit water source for more than 50 years. The change will now cost upwards of $1.5 billion, by most accounts, including replacing Flint’s entire water system, loss of revenue, the cost of bottled water, the cost of caring for children who now live with the effects of elevated blood lead levels and, worse, lead poisoning.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: If this sounds criminal, several lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing agree. Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee raised the specter of a 1970s cult leader who led the mass murder-suicide of his more than 900 followers, nearly 300 of them children.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: As I sit here today, the memories of a Jim Jones, who gave a poison concoction to children, causes me to say that there is a Jim Jones in Michigan who gave a poison concoction to children and their families. If any of us should demand accountability, we should. ... Mr. Edwards, you have given a recounting of just not putting phosphate in water. And I know that you are not a judge or a jury, and I know you’re a man that believes in the Constitution, but if you had to reflect, would you say that there were criminal activities or results of this inaction?

MARC EDWARDS: If it’s not criminal, I don’t know what is.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE: I join you in that questioning, and I have asked the Department of Justice to investigate individuals that may be engaged criminally, to hold them criminally responsible for the actions in Flint, Michigan.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat from Texas, speaking with Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards. While many Michigan residents have called on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to resign over the crisis, he was not asked to testify at yesterday’s hearing. Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings asked why.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS: The problem is that today we are missing the most critical witness of all: the governor of the state of Michigan, Rick Snyder. He is not here. Governor Snyder was the driving force behind Michigan’s emergency manager law, which he signed in 2011 and invoked to take over the city of Flint from its local elected leaders. The governor handpicked appointees to run the city, and they decided to use water from the Flint River. He also led the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which failed to protect the people of Flint, according to the governor’s own task force charged with investigating this crisis. ...

There’s a fellow who had a song that I used to love. He never had any hits in my district, but he sang the song. He said—and his name was Cat Stevens. And Cat Stevens said, "Oh very young, what will you bring us this time? You’re only dancing on this Earth for a short time. Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?" And I’ve often said that our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see. The question is, is: What will they leave us? And how will we send them into that future? Will we send them strong? Will we send them hopeful? Will we rob them of their destiny? Will we rob them of their dreams? No, we will not do that!

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings at yesterday’s hearing.


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