Until a month or two ago, Tammy Brewer didn’t really understand what lead poisoning was. The lifelong Flint, Michigan, resident doesn’t have a TV, and because of health issues she doesn’t spend a lot of time out and about in the city. She was “cut off,” as she puts it, and besides, she had other things to worry about: In the past few years her mother died, she separated from her husband, and then she lost her son, too, from complications related to diabetes. It wasn’t until friends told her there was something wrong that she made the connection between the switch the city made in the source of its water supply in April 2014, and her thinning hair and the painful sores she’d been getting all over her body.
“I just can’t even fathom all that’s going on, and then—we’re being poisoned by our own government?” Brewer says. She worries that her niece and nephew, who lived with her for most of 2014, were exposed to lead. “I was still cooking with [tap water.] I didn’t know,” she explains. Now Brewer uses bottled water, but only when she can afford it. With an income of $630 a month, plus $80 in food assistance, there’s not a lot left over for the extra expense.
On Tuesday evening, Brewer and about 60 other Flint residents boarded busses bound for Washington, DC. They arrived Wednesday morning just as the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform began a hearing “to examine the ongoing situation in Flint.” There were two conspicuous absences on the witness panel: Michigan governor Rick Snyder, and Darnell Earley, the Snyder-appointed emergency manager who approved the switch to corrosive water from the Flint River in 2014. Earley had been served a subpoena issued by the committee’s Republican majority, which he defied. Snyder wasn’t even invited to appear—an oversight that rankled Democrats on the committee, as well as Flint residents like Brewer who’d made the trip themselves.
“We are missing the most critical witness of all: the governor of the State of Michigan,” said an emotional Elijah Cummings, the ranking member on the committee. “Can anybody tell me why the governor of Michigan is not here today? Because he’s hiding,” said Pennsylvania’s Matt Cartwright, who said the hearing was designed to “create an equivalency of blame,” rather than determine real responsibility. In a letter sent the same day to committee chairman Jason Chaffetz, Cummings and Democratic colleagues accused him of trying “to limit our Committee’s investigation to the actions of the federal government.” Although an official from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was grilled at the hearing, it was clear that the main target for Republican members was the Environmental Protection Agency.