Flint water crisis: EPA regional administrator resigns

Story highlights

  • When Flint's former mayor asked the EPA for information, Susan Hedman essentially shot him down
  • Her resignation comes one day after Gov. Rick Snyder released more than 250 pages of emails
  • Flint residents say they're outraged they're getting bills for water they can't even use

Flint, Michigan (CNN)The Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator for Flint, Michigan, has resigned, the agency said in a statement Thursday.

"EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman has offered her resignation effective February 1, and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has accepted given Susan's strong interest in ensuring that EPA Region 5's focus remains solely on the restoration of Flint's drinking water," the agency said.
    In late June, then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling wrote to Hedman, seeking information about the issue of lead in Flint's drinking water. She essentially shot him down in her response.
    "The preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency. When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the City and MDEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) -- and MDEQ will be responsible for following up with the City," Hedman wrote.
    She had also fallen under fire for allegedly retaliating against EPA employees involved in investigating sexual harassment cases.

    More than 250 pages of governor's emails

    Hedman's resignation comes one day after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder released more than 250 pages of his emails that relate to the crisis.
    The document dump did little to ease the predicament in which he finds himself. With each passing day, the chorus for him to step down has grown louder because the water debacle unfolded under his watch.
    "So far, all roads lead to Lansing when it comes to accountability," Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents the Flint area, said Wednesday.
    The emails help show, at least in part, how officials responded to the growing concerns about toxic lead contamination in Flint's tap water. Some of them don't paint a pretty picture.
    His former chief of staff realized back in September 2015 the situation was becoming a political issue, but he then shifted the responsibility away from the state to the city.
    "Of course, some of the Flint people respond by looking for someone to blame instead of working to reduce anxiety. We can't tolerate increased lead levels in any event, but it's really the city's water system that needs to deal with it," Dennis Muchmore, Snyder's then-chief of staff, wrote in one email. He did say the state was "throwing as much assistance as possible at the lead problem."

    'They need to take responsibility'

    Famed environmental activist Erin Brokovich told CNN the city's emergency manager and the governor should be held responsible.
    "We gave them a protocol a year ago as well on exactly how to avoid this disaster, and they did not want to listen," she said.
    The state, which at the time was in charge of the Flint's budget because the city was in a financial emergency, switched the city's water supply temporarily in April 2014 as a cost-saving measure.
    Also Wednesday, the Michigan House of Representatives approved $28 million in emergency funding that Snyder had requested. But critics say the figure is too little and too late.
    "They need to take responsibility for their actions, and they need to make this right with the people," resident Leanne Walters told CNN.
    Walters says her 5-year-old son has developed speech issues and a compromised immune system since the water crisis began. "There is no trust there anymore."
    Even President Barack Obama seemed frustrated.
    "I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kids' health could be at risk," he said in Detroit on Wednesday. "It is a reminder of why you can't shortchange basic services that we provide to our people."

    Billed for bad water

    Adding to residents' outrage is the fact that they were being billed for water that put them in danger.
    Several have filed a class-action suit to invalidate water bills from the city.
    "The water has not been fit for its intended purpose. Essentially, the residents have been getting billed for water that they cannot use," Trachelle Young, an attorney representing Flint residents, said. "We do not feel that that is a fair way to treat the residents."
    The city sent shut-off notices in November and December but did not disconnect water service. Kristin Moore, the director of public relations for Flint, told CNN the city has to charge for water to keep the system up-and-running and help pay for outstanding bond payment obligations.
    "You have to pay a water bill for something that you can only flush with. And then you have to buy water on top of it. For those living in a low-income area, it's just terrible," said Rev. Bobby Jackson of "Mission of Hope," an organization that's handing out bottled water to Flint residents.

    A racial component

    Flint is a relatively poor, blue-collar city of just under 100,000 people. The median income is $24,000 and 56% of the population is African-American.
    Like many Flint natives, Kildee thinks race and socioeconomic factors played a role in the state's response to the water crisis.
    "While it might not be intentional, there's this implicit bias against older cities -- particularly older cities with poverty (and) majority-minority communities," he said. "It's hard for me to imagine the indifference that we've seen exhibited if this had happened in a much more affluent community."
    A cartoon from Politco's Matt Wuerker added fire to the fuel by evoking segregationist imagery.
    It showed two water fountains: One labeled, "White" with clear liquid spouting from it and a more spartan-looking fountain labeled "Colored," with brown liquid spewing out.
    And at the Conference of Mayors in Washington on Wednesday, Mayor Karen Weaver implied that had Flint been a wealthy suburb, the water problem would've been solved much faster.
    "It's a minority community. It's a poor community. And our voices were not heard," she said.