- Nayyirah Shariffcoordinator with the Flint Democracy Defense League.
- Melissa Maysactivist and founder of Water You Fighting For?, a Flint, Michigan-based research and advocacy organization founded around the city’s water crisis. She and her three children suffer from long-term exposure to heavy metals.
This week Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder testified for the first time before Congress about lead poisoning in the water supply of Flint, Michigan, which began after he appointed an unelected emergency manager who switched the source of the city’s drinking water to the corrosive Flint River. Snyder testified along with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Flint’s former emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who refused to appear at last month’s hearing despite a subpoena from the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. We play highlights from the hearing and speak with two Flint residents who attended. Melissa Mays is an activist and founder of Water You Fighting For?, a Flint, Michigan-based research and advocacy organization founded around the city’s water crisis. She and her three children suffer from long-term exposure to heavy metals because of the water supply. Nayyirah Shariff is a coordinator with the Flint Democracy Defense League.
AMY GOODMAN: This week, Congress held additional hearings on lead poisoning in the water supply of Flint, Michigan. The crisis began after an unelected emergency manager appointed by the Michigan Republican governor, Rick Snyder, switched the source of Flint’s drinking water to the corrosive Flint River. Snyder testified on Thursday and acknowledged his role in the crisis.
GOV. RICK SNYDER: Let me be blunt: This was a failure of government at all levels. Local, state and federal officials, we all failed the families of Flint. This isn’t about politics nor partisanship. I’m not going to point fingers or shift blame. There’s plenty of that to share, and neither will help the people of Flint. Not a day or night goes by that this tragedy doesn’t weigh on my mind—the questions I should have asked, the answers I should have demanded, how I could have prevented this.
AMY GOODMAN: Among those who testified this week are EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Flint’s former emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who refused to testify at last month’s hearing, despite a subpoena from the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The hearings took place—well, took on a partisan tone, with Republicans going after the EPA’s McCarthy and Democrats grilling Snyder.
Well, for more on the congressional hearings into Flint’s water crisis, we’re joined by two guests. Melissa Mays, activist and founder of Water You Fighting For?—that’s W-A-T-E-R, Water You Fighting For?—and she is a Flint, Michigan-based research and advocacy organization head. It was founded around the city’s water crisis. She and her three children suffer from long-term exposure to heavy metals because of the water supply. And Nayyirah Shariff is with us, coordinator of the Flint Democracy Defense League. They both attended the congressional hearing.
Nayyirah Shariff, your response to what the governor said yesterday? It was his first time speaking at the hearing.
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, it was interesting, because the governor has not yet spoken or come to Flint to speak to residents in a public setting. So it was very interesting for him to go down there. And we sent over 150 people from Flint down to the hearing.
AMY GOODMAN: And did you hear anything new, Melissa Mays?
MELISSA MAYS: The only thing that was different was this was the first time that he even slightly admitted that he knew anything was wrong with the water in 2014. He has tried to stand by the “I didn’t know anything until October of 2015,” but then he said, “Well, there were 'issues' with the water—discoloration and foul smell,” like that was OK, just because there wasn’t lead in it. However, the test results show that there was lead in 2014, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: The partisan divide was on display during Thursday’s hearing on the Flint water crisis, with Democrats calling for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder, and Republicans doing the same with the EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy. This is an exchange between Congressmember Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and chair of the Oversight and Reform Committee, and EPA head Gina McCarthy.
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: In February is when you first arrived on the scene, and it wasn’t until January of the next year that you actually did something. That’s the fundamental problem! Don’t look around like you’re mystified!
GINA McCARTHY: No.
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: That’s what happened! Miguel Del Toral showed up in February! You didn’t take action. You didn’t. And you could have pulled that switch.
GINA McCARTHY: We consistently took action from that point forward, consistently.
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: There is—there are a lot of people in this audience from Flint.
GINA McCARTHY: Sir—
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: Nobody believes that you took action. You had those levers there. Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech, bless his heart—
GINA McCARTHY: Sir, we—
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: No, just listen for a second.
GINA McCARTHY: OK.
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: —had the opportunity. They have said things like, “We failed to get EPA to take lead-in-the-water risks seriously.” It’s possible—another quote of his: “And this is possible because the EPA has effectively condoned cheating on the Lead and Copper Rule monitoring since 2006.” He read your op-ed that you put out, that was one of the most offensive things I could possibly imagine. And he says, about you, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, that effectively absolved EPA of any wrongdoing or any role in creating the Flint disaster. If you want to do the courageous thing, like you said Susan Hedman did, then you, too, should resign.
AMY GOODMAN: After a tense exchange, Congressman Matt Cartwright, a Pennsylvania Democrat, called for Snyder’s resignation.
REP. MATT CARTWRIGHT: I’ve had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies. Susan Hedman from the EPA bears not one-tenth of the responsibility of the state of Michigan and your administration, and she resigned. And there you are, dripping with guilt, but drawing your paycheck, hiring lawyers at the expense of the people, and doing your dead level best to spread accountability to others and not being accountable. It’s not appropriate. Pretty soon, we will have men who strike their wives saying, “I’m sorry, dear, but there were failures at all levels.” People who put dollars over the fundamental safety of the people do not belong in government, and you need to resign, too, Governor Snyder.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, Pennsylvania Democrat Matt Cartwright telling Governor Rick Snyder to resign. Melissa Mays, how is this helping what is happening in Flint? And what would that mean if the governor resigned?
MELISSA MAYS: Well, the biggest thing, I think, that the hearings are showing is that we matter. For two years we’ve been yelling and screaming about the water, and we didn’t matter, no one listened. So here it is on a national scale. It’s in front of Congress. And that just shows that what happened to us is indeed a crime, it’s wrong, we’re not crazy. And so, we’re hoping that this will further any criminal investigation. I mean, they were both sworn in. There were lies told. We sat there and just screamed in the audience. But if he resigns, obviously he’s not going to do anything to help. But he’s doing very little being in office as he is. So the only thing that we can hope for is that whoever follows him behind actually steps up, takes responsibility and fixes our city.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you feel is Governor Rick Snyder’s responsibility? For someone tuning in today for the first time—they don’t know what happened in Flint, Michigan—why do you feel the governor is responsible?
MELISSA MAYS: Well, because we were under a state of emergency management, meaning he appointed one person to run our city. That one person made all of these decisions as for switching our water source and to ignore us. And that one person reported back only to the governor and treasurer. So this is on the state. They knew that there were problems in 2014, and they let us continue to drink the water for 18 months.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in April of 2014, they switched the water supply of Flint that, what, Flint had for like 50 years—
MELISSA MAYS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —the Detroit water supply, to the corrosive Flint River.
MELISSA MAYS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you, at home, immediately notice something wrong?
MELISSA MAYS: It was soon after. We started smelling open sewer coming out of our taps, and our water started turning yellow. And we just—I mean, we knew it wasn’t going to be great. We thought it was a joke that we were going to the Flint River. But as soon as the discoloration happened and the foul smells and then the rashes started, we knew it was bad. And they just told us, “It’s hard water. It’s safe. You’ll be fine.”
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier in the week, former EPA offical Susan Hedman, who resigned in the wake of the Flint water crisis, testified before the House Oversight Committee hearing. California Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu asked Hedman why it took so long for the agency to warn residents.
REP. TED LIEU: You knew, EPA knew in April, corrosive agents not done. In June, you were notified of that. And then you were given a report that said “lots of lead in this drinking water.” And then nothing is done ’til December. There is no excuse for that. Someone needed to have yelled and screamed and said, “Stop this! People are being poisoned.” Should have been done in at least July or August, maybe September, at least by October. That was so wrong. This was a crime of epic proportions that could have been prevented. I yield back.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain, Melissa Mays, who Susan Hedman was, regional director of the EPA. She has resigned.
MELISSA MAYS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain who Miguel Del Toral is.
MELISSA MAYS: Well, he’s part of the water division, and he’s an expert as for, you know, water treatment. And he asked—in February of 2015, he asked the state Department of Environmental Quality, “Are you using corrosion control?” because he saw the high lead levels already occurring. And he said, “Are you using corrosion control?” And they said yes. They lied to the EPA. Well, he didn’t believe them, because we were turning in more and more test results that showed high lead, so he kept digging into it. In June, he released an interim report saying that there’s problems, they’re not doing their job at the state level.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did Hedman do with that report?
MELISSA MAYS: Said that it wasn’t finished, it wasn’t finalized, it was full of errors, and that they did not back him. They did not back him. And then, we weren’t allowed to speak to him for weeks.
AMY GOODMAN: And she then was forced to resign. Finally, Nayyirah Shariff, as you see these two hearings this week, what are you going back to? What are you demanding now?
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: Well, Flint needs a full-on humanitarian effort, because Snyder has said that all levels of government have failed Flint. Really, there was only one level, and that was because of the emergency manager law. We did not have access to local democracy. We did not have agency. And we really need—this is a public health disaster. We—at the state sites, we can only get one case of water per day. And that is not enough to meet the needs of the community.
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds. Right now, your most important demand?
NAYYIRAH SHARIFF: We need a public health disaster declaration by President Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. We’re going to continue the conversation and post it online at democracynow.org. Nayyirah Shariff, coordinator with Flint Democracy Defense League, and Melissa Mays, activist and founder of Water You Fighting For?