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Congressman scolds Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder: "Plausible deniability only works when it's plausible"

"Even when you did know, you did nothing," Rep. Carolyn Maloney tells EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy

Washington CNN  — 

Neither Michigan’s governor nor the nation’s top environmental official got much sympathy Thursday from a congressional panel looking into the Flint water crisis.

“Plausible deniability only works when it’s plausible,” Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pennsylvania, told Gov. Rick Snyder after emails were read showing Snyder’s top staff knew of problems with the city’s water for months before action was taken. “You were not in a medically induced coma for a year. I’ve had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies.”

Snyder’s testimony has long been awaited by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, and by hundreds of Flint residents who showed up to both watch and protest, many of them have been calling for the governor to step down since January.

Ranking member Elijah Cummings called Snyder’s administration “vindictive” and said it showed “utter incompetence.” He said the governor was chiefly responsible for enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Snyder admitted the state “messed up,” but he continued his claim that the Environmental Protection Agency and its administrator, Gina McCarthy, should have recognized failures by state officials.

“I have a really simple question, why didn’t Administrator McCarthy just get on the phone and call me?” Snyder said. “…I have accepted responsibility because those people work for me, but it’s something different to have this continuing dialogue to say this was solely us.” he said.

McCarthy, who in her testimony to the House panel did not take as much responsibility as Snyder did, got a bipartisan grilling from committee members.

Despite emails and internal memos that show the EPA staffers were aware of high lead levels as early as February 2015 and were communicating regularly with state officials, McCarthy claimed Michigan officials hindered the EPA’s ability to oversee and stop the crisis.

An emergency wasn’t declared by the EPA until this January. Susan Hedman, the EPA regional director, resigned in February over her handling of the crisis, but she denied any wrongdoing when she testified earlier this week.

“I will take responsibility for not pushing hard enough, but I will not take responsibility for causing this problem. It was not EPA at the helm when this happened,” McCarthy said.

“Say whatever you want about being in the dark about the warning signs,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, told McCarthy. “Even when you did know, you did nothing.”

Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Georgia, asked McCarthy, “Would common sense have told you to say, ‘Hey stop drinking the water?’”

“Not at that time,” McCarthy replied.

Apologies ‘a little bit late’ for Flint children

The crisis sprang from government officials’ decision in April 2014 to switch the city’s water source temporarily and use water from the Flint River as a cost-cutting measure. Corrosive water from the Flint River leached lead into the city’s drinking supply.

The city switched back to the Lake Huron water supply a year and a half later, but the damage was already done.

Snyder took issue with the committee’s framing of some events.

The governor has said he was not made aware of the severity of the lead levels in Flint’s water until October 2015. Cummings pointed out that some of Snyder’s top staff (15 of whom, the congressman noted, have refused to talk to the committee) already knew about it.

“Either [your chief of staff] told you and you did nothing, or he did tell you and you’re an absentee governor,” Cummings said.

Cartwright, the Pennsylvania Democrat, asked: “Do you admit here today seeing headline after headline about health problems – hair loss, rashes, E.coli, bacteria, sewage, Legionnaires’ disease – did you read any of those stories, Governor Snyder?”

“Congressman, I read a number of those stories. What I would tell you is those stories – we would follow up on them and continue to get reaffirmation from career bureaucrats that the water was safe. That was wrong.”

Several members echoed enraged Flint residents in saying apologies are not enough.

“We have no evidence of you traveling to Flint for seven months, Governor. Seven months,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Virginia. “I’m glad you’re sorry now. I’m glad you’re taking action now. But it’s a little bit late now for the kids in Flint.”

Connolly had staffers hold up stacks of papers – orders issued by Snyder’s emergency managers who were making decisions for the city of Flint when the critical water decisions were made. – at times overriding the wishes of city council.

“Do you know how many of those 8,000 pages dealt with meaningful steps to protect the citizens of Flint from lead flowing through their pipes, governor? Your appointees?

“No,” Snyder said.

“Not one. Not one,” Connolly said.

Snyder repeatedly told the committee that he believes the only way to fix the crisis is to stay in office and personally oversee “culture” changes that he says caused the problem.

‘Why do we even need an EPA?’

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in June 2015 photo.

While both the GOP governor and the Obama administration’s EPA chief were scolded roundly, the question of who is more to blame clearly was divided along party lines.

Earlier, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, told McCarthy, “You know better. I look at the gentleman next to you [Snyder] as someone who has taken responsibility. I’m looking at somebody else and I want to see responsibility, too. And the American people demand it. … Not only am I asking for you to be fired; if you’re not going to resign, you should be impeached.”

Cummings said it was Snyder who “ignored warnings not to go forward with the switch, not the EPA,” and Snyder’s administration who “falsely told the EPA there was corrosion control when there was not.”

Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz and other Republicans argued that if the EPA couldn’t stop the crisis in Flint, “Why do we even need an EPA?”

“We were strong-armed, we were misled, we were kept at arm’s length, we couldn’t do our jobs effectively,” McCarthy responded.

“Wow, you just don’t get it. You just don’t get it,” Chaffetz said. “You still don’t get it.”

CNN’s Sarah Jorgensen and Cameron Tankersley contributed to this report.