House panel accuses officials of covering up Flint water crisis

Flint Water Crisis: A Timeline of Events

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's water office told lawmakers Wednesday that Michigan authorities broke federal rules requiring them to add anti-corrosive materials to drinking water pumped into Flint homes, triggering a lead-poisoning crisis.

SEE ALSO: $1 billion-plus 'blockbuster' drugs seen reaching market in 2016

But critics also accused the EPA of covering up what it knew about that misconduct while Flint residents continued drinking the tainted water.

"If it's not criminal, I don't know what is," Marc Edwards, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech who helped uncover the pollution, told a House Oversight Committee hearing on the crisis.

Blame ricocheted around the room for hours, as lawmakers, a researcher, a Flint mother and government officials debated failures by Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA to deal with lead from corroded pipes that began leaching into city homes following the city's 2014 cost-saving move to start pumping water from the Flint River.

The unfolding crisis, now under criminal investigation by state and federal authorities, caused elevated levels of lead in the blood of thousands of Flint children.

The EPA's water official, Joel Beauvais, said the Department of Environmental Quality first said corrosion treatment wasn't needed for the river water, then "resisted" demands to follow rules requiring it.

The state agency's new head, Keith Creagh, didn't fight that characterization. "We were minimalistic and legalistic in our behavior," he said.

Photos from the crisis:

28 PHOTOS
Flint Michigan water crisis
See Gallery
House panel accuses officials of covering up Flint water crisis
People wait in line to attend a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing with Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy about the tainted water in Flint, Michigan, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 17, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 23: A volunteer walks by cases of bottled water at the St. Mark Baptist Church in Flint, Mich., that serves as a water distribution area, February 23, 2016. The water supply was not properly treated after being switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River and now contains lead and iron. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 23: From left, Immanuel Stinson, Tirrell Mills, Walter Simmons, and Charles Reid, man a water distribution area at the St. Mark Baptist Church in Flint, Mich., February 23, 2016. The water supply was not properly treated after being switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River and now contains lead and iron. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 26: Matt Hopper holds and comforts Nyla Hopper, age 5 of Flint, after she has her blood drawn to be tested for lead on January 26, 2016 at Eisenhower Elementary School in Flint, Michigan. Free lead screenings are performed for Flint children 6-years-old and younger, one of several events sponsored by Molina Healthcare following the city's water contamination and federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Flint residents Gladyes Williamson (C) holds a bottle full of contaminated water, and a clump of her hair, alongside Jessica Owens (R), holding a baby bottle full of contaminated water, during a news conference after attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis on Capitol Hill February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. Williamson, and Owens traveled to Washington by bus with other flint familes to attend the House hearing on the crisis, and demand that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder be brought before Congress to testify under oath. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Flint resident Jessica Owens holds a baby bottle full of contaminated water, during a news conference after attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis on Capitol Hill February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. Owens and other Flint families traveled to Washington by bus to attend a House hearing on the crisis and demand that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder be brought before Congress to testify under oath. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Flint residents call for justice during a news conference, after attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis on Capitol Hill February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. A group of Flint families traveled to Washington by bus to attend a House hearing on the crisis and demand that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder be brought before Congress to testify under oath. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Flint resident Leroy Jackson attends a news conference with Flint families after attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis on Capitol Hill February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. Jackson and other Flint families traveled to Washington by bus to attend a House hearing and demand that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder be brought before Congress to testify under oath. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 3: From left, Marc Edwards, Charles P. Lundsford Professor of Environmental and Water Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, looks on as LeeAnne Walters, Flint resident who helped expose the lead crisis, testifies during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Examining Federal Administration of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Flint, Michigan on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 27: A sign at a local restaurant reassures customers that they are not on Flint water but on uncontaminated water pulled from Detroit on January 27, 2016 at Westside Diner in Flint, Michigan. Local restaurants have faced concerns following the contamination of Flint's water and subsequent federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 24: Matt Krol speaks to protestors and citizens about the Flint Water Crisis on January 24, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. The event was organized by Genesee County Volunteer Militia to protest corruption they see in government related to the Flint water crisis that resulted in a federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 24: A shirt worn by a man during a rally displays a poisonous logo alongside the text 'City of Flint MI Water Dept.' on January 24, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. The event was organized by Genesee County Volunteer Militia to protest corruption they see in government related to the Flint water crisis that resulted in a federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 24: Protestors hold signs and listen as Dave McKellar speaks about the troubles facing Flint at a rally on January 24, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. The event was organized by Genesee County Volunteer Militia to protest corruption they see in government related to the Flint water crisis that resulted in a federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 24: Darius Simpson, an Eastern Michigan University student from Akron, Ohio, carries water he brought to donate for Flint residents during a rally on January 24, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. The event was organized by Genesee County Volunteer Militia to protest corruption they see in government related to the Flint water crisis that resulted in a federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 23: A water collection device is handed out to citizens of Flint for testing contaminated water on January 23, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. A federal state of emergency has been declared due to the city's water supply being contaminated. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 24: Arthur Woodson, self proclaimed 'Water Warrior' from Flint, Michigan, speaks about the Flint Water Crisis on January 24, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. The event was organized by Genesee County Volunteer Militia to protest corruption they see in government related to the Flint water crisis that resulted in a federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 27: Signs for a local restaurant reassure customers that they are not on Flint water but on uncontaminated water pulled from Detroit on January 27, 2016 at Westside Diner in Flint, Michigan. Local restaurants have faced concerns following the contamination of Flint's water and subsequent federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 27: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder wears pins as he speaks to the media regarding the status of the Flint water crisis on January 27, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. A federal state of emergency has been declared in Flint related to the city's water becoming contaminated. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 23: National Guard members distributing water to citizens of Flint on January 23, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. Water is being handed out for free to citizens of Flint following a federal state of emergency being declared due to the city's water supply becoming contaminated. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 17: Justin Roberson (L), age 6, of Flint, Michigan and Mychal Adams, age 1, of Flint wait on a stack of bottled water at a rally where the Rev. Jesse Jackson was speaking about about the water crises at the Heavenly Host Baptist Church January 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. U.S. President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Michigan, which will free up federal aid to help the city of Flint with lead contaminated drinking water. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder requested emergency and disaster declarations after activating the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to residents. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 17: A sign on a the front of a building warns residents to filter their water January 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. U.S. President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Michigan, which will free up federal aid to help the city of Flint with lead contaminated drinking water. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder requested emergency and disaster declarations after activating the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to residents. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 17: The Flint River flows in downtown January 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. U.S. President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Michigan, which will free up federal aid to help the city of Flint with lead contaminated drinking water. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder requested emergency and disaster declarations after activating the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to residents. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 17: Soldiers from the Michigan Army National Guard Flint hand out bottled water at a fire station January 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. U.S. President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Michigan, which will free up federal aid to help the city of Flint with lead contaminated drinking water. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder requested emergency and disaster declarations after activating the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to residents. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 13: A sign points the ay for Flint residents to get bottled water, water testing kits, and water filters at a Flint Fire Station January 13, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. On Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder activated the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to Flint residents to help them deal with the lead contamination that is in the City of Flint's water supply. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 13: Michigan National Guard Staff Sergeant Steve Kiger of Beaverton, Michigan, welcomes Flint, Michigan residents as they arrive at a Flint Fire Station to get bottled water January 13, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. On Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder activated the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to Flint residents to help them deal with the lead contamination that is in the City of Flint's water supply. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 13: The Flint Water Plant tower is shown January 13, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. On Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder activated the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to Flint residents to help them deal with the lead contamination that is in the City of Flint's water supply. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FLINT, MI - JANUARY 13: Michigan National Guard Staff Sergeant William Phillips (right) of Birch Run, Michigan, helps a worker unload a pallet of bottled water at a Flint Fire Station January 13, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. On Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder activated the National Guard to help the American Red Cross distribute water to Flint residents to help them deal with the lead contamination that is in the City of Flint's water supply. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

But Beauvais, too, came under withering criticism from lawmakers who asked why the EPA didn't tell the public after one of its workers reported high concentrations of lead in a Flint home in February 2015.

"I don't know the answer to that question," Beauvais told chairman Jason Chaffetz.

"You can't come to a hearing without the answer to that question," Chaffetz shot back. "The crying shame here is, when they knew there was a problem, they should have told the public."

Lee Anne Walters, the mother who'd called the EPA to her house, recalled her lonely crusade for answers, ultimately finding Edwards. Tearing up, she said her son is suffering from anemia and learning issues as a result of lead poisoning.

"The city and MDEQ still told people the water was safe, while the EPA watched in silence," she said.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said Wednesday he will propose $30 million in state funding to help pay the water bills of Flint residents facing an emergency over the city's lead-contaminated water supply.

Conspicuously missing from the hearing was the state-appointed official who ordered the city's fateful switch in water sources.

Lawyers for the official, Darnell Early, have said that he didn't get the subpoena from the committee in time to travel to Washington, and that he was too busy dealing with another crisis: deteriorating conditions in Detroit public schools.

Chaffetz vowed to ask U.S. Marshals to "hunt him down" to make him testify.

"This is a failing at every level," Chaffetz said.

The crisis dates to the city's unusual decision, under leadership of Early, to save money by switching from Detroit's water system to the Flint River. The river water ate away at old pipes, delivering lead-tainted water to customers. A chorus of residents and scientists raised warnings, but government officials insisted for months that the water was not dangerous.

"There was a continuous effort to try to minimize this problem as if it did not exist." Flint Congressman Dan Kildee told the panel.

Since late last year, when the crisis boiled over, the city's people have been drinking bottled water, with help from donated home filter systems. The Flint River water still is not drinkable, officials said.

Edwards said he'd been warning the EPA for years of the weakness of federal laws meant to prevent such disasters from happening.

"All we learned is that the agencies paid to protect us from lead in drinking water can get away with anything," Edwards said.

SEE ALSO: Cities worldwide petition to ban 'pro-rape' blogger

He described the situation in Flint — the misguided switch, the sloppy testing, the slow government response — as "part '1984' and part 'Enemy of the State.'"

Edwards added, "And I am personally shamed that the profession I belong to, the drinking water industry in this country, has allowed this to occur."

Melissa Mays, a mother of three, was among dozens of Flint residents who took an overnight bus to attend Wednesday's hearing.

"It's nice to see we're not the only people yelling at these people anymore," she said. "Lawmakers, respected people, are saying this is wrong, this is criminal, this has got to stop."

Mays, 37, said she hoped the next hearing would include the people accused in the cover-up, including Early, and workers from MDEQ and EPA.

"Until they're there under oath, it's just not enough," she said.

More from NBC News:
Santorum expected to end 2016 run
Robert Durst cops a gun plea, faces murder trial
12-year-old 'hero' gunned down by Taliban

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.