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Snyder battles calls to resign over Flint water crisis

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is sworn in to testify before a House Oversight and government Reform hearing on "Examining Federal Administration of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Flint, Michigan, Part III" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 17, 2016.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder urged policymakers to pass a $165 million appropriation for Flint residents Thursday even as he faced calls for resignation over the dangerous levels of lead in drinking water there.

Snyder apologized for the public health emergency in the city and defended his administration's response in testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington on Thursday.

He pointed to reforms like diagnostic testing and home nurse visits, deflecting accusations that the state alone is responsible for lead that leached into residents' pipes when Flint switched its water supply from Detroit to the Flint River in April 2014 in a cost-cutting move.

Michigan National Guard Staff Sergeant William Phillips of Birch Run, Michigan, helps Flint resident Amanda Roark and her son Dash take bottled water out to her vehicle after she received it at a Flint Fire Station January 13, 2016 in Flint, Michigan.
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"Let me be blunt: This was a failure of government at all levels, local, state and federal," Snyder said. "I'm not going to point fingers or shift blame."

But Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., argued it is Snyder, not the Environmental Protection Agency, that is responsible for the crisis, saying the governor failed to act as staffers and the EPA sounded alarms.

"Children will sit in the second and third grade and will not be able to read the words, 'See spot run,' and they won't know why," Cummings said at the opening of the hearing Thursday. "But the reason why is because there is lead in their veins."

There were reports of numerous health issues in Flint including an uptick in cases of Legionnaires' disease, a rare type of pneumonia. Occurrences of Legionnaires' disease in the city after the water source switch were more than the previous five years combined, Snyder said during the hearing.

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"Obviously given the change in water source it's a concern," Snyder said. But he said he was unaware of much of the knowledge discussed by his staffers, including his chief of staff.

"There's no doubt in my mind that if a corporate CEO did what Gov. Snyder is doing he would be hauled off on criminal charges. The board of directors would throw him out and the shareholders would revolt," Cummings said.

Michigan residents lined up at the Capitol hoping to be let in to hear testimony, Cummings said, scheduled to determine the role of the EPA in the emergency. The agency's funding is decided by Congress.

Cummings said that Snyder had primary responsibility, but that the EPA could have done more. Internal emails from an EPA administrator who later resigned stated she was "not so sure that Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said.

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"Are you kidding me? Of all the communities out there, Flint is the No. 1 place they should be going out on a limb for. It's depressed economically," Chaffetz said.

But EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy contended that, though they could have acted faster, her staffers were provided with false information from the state of Michigan.

"We should not have been so trusting of the state for so long when they provided us with overly simplistic assurances of technical compliance rather than substantive responses to our increasingly growing concerns," she said.

State experts at the Department of Environmental Quality assured Snyder the water was safe, despite outside warnings of dangerous levels of lead coming from the Flint River, he told the committee. His investigation has found systemic failures within the state department.

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"Bureaucrats created a culture that valued technical competence over common sense, and the result was lead leaching into drinking water," Snyder said. His administration is releasing emails and documents so "Michigan citizens have an open, honest assessment of what happened."

Despite the state's recent efforts to restore clean water to Flint, Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., called Snyder's deniability implausible.

"I'm not buying that you didn't know about any of this until October 2015," Cartwright said. "You were not in a medically induced coma for a year. I've about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies."

"Pretty soon we will have men who strike their wives saying, 'I'm sorry dear, but there were failures at all levels.' … You need to resign too, Gov. Snyder," said Cartwright.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.