Joe Biden will name Gina McCarthy as his White House “climate czar“, making the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency his top domestic climate coordinator. The news sparked outrage among those who pointed out that agency’s failures during the Flint water crisis.
The criticism rained from all both sides of the aisle, as well as from activists. According to the Detroit Free Press, LeeAnne Walters, an environmental activist from Flint who first brought attention to the lead problem, told NBC 25 in Saginaw that the expected appointment was “absolutely appalling” and “a huge injustice to everyone in Flint and everything that we’ve suffered.”
Former Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, criticized Biden as “oblivious about Flint,” given that he is “empowering Gina McCarthy again.”
“She was a disaster at EPA, and now he is bringing her back for more,” Chaffetz said in a post on Twitter on Tuesday night. “Michigan, your votes mattered, and Biden is bringing Flint water to all of us.”
Biden is so oblivious about Flint, Michigan water that he is empowering Gina McCarthy again. She was a disaster at EPA, and now he is bringing her back for more. Michigan, your votes mattered, and Biden is bringing Flint water to all of us. #Flint
— Jason Chaffetz (@jasoninthehouse) December 15, 2020
At the time of the Flint water crisis, where lead from aging pipes leached into the city’s water system after it changed its water source, Chaffetz was the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which held hearings on the issue.
Chaffetz wasn’t the only one to object. “The people of Michigan won’t soon forget Gina McCarthy’s mishandling of and failure to adequately respond to the Flint water crisis as EPA administrator,” U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, a Tipton Republican and a former member of the committee who took part in the Flint hearings, told the Free Press Wednesday morning. “That ineptness alone is reason enough to disqualify her from a senior role, but her push for higher energy taxes and heavy-handed government regulations is also concerning for consumers.”
Democrats also chimed in: Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Flint Township who is a supporter of Biden’s, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon, noting deep doubts about the choice. While thanking Biden for taking climate change so seriously, Kildee – who was a sharp critic of both the state’s and federal government’s roles in causing the Flint water crisis – said he’d heard from several Flint residents who “expressed their concerns to me about this appointment and I have relayed their concerns to (Biden’s transition team).”
“While the position of White House climate coordinator does not require confirmation by Congress, we must never forget the failures of the Flint water crisis,” said Kildee, who led efforts to require faster public notifications of high levels of lead in water systems and to approve funding to replace lead water pipes in the wake of the crisis. “All levels of government, including the state of Michigan and the Environmental Protection Agency, failed Flint families.”
While former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, shouldered much of the blame in hearings on the crisis for overseeing an administration that did not require corrosion control measures that could have limited the spread of lead, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under McCarthy had also clearly known for months that corrosion controls weren’t being used before it finally stepped in to force compliance.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Chairman, you can only take so much,” the normally placid Snyder said at a hearing on the Flint crisis before the Oversight Committee in March 2016 after McCarthy again insisted sole responsibility for the crisis was the state’s, despite emails showing the EPA was aware corrosion controls weren’t being used and its own experts were warning officials of the danger.
As Free Press stories at the time showed, emails from at least one expert, EPA Region 5 Regulations Manager Miguel Del Toral, showed him warning officials about high levels of lead at one residence in Flint that could be indicative of larger problems after the city had switched to draw water from the Flint River in February 2015.
It took months before the EPA forced the state to act and nearly a year before Snyder and the Obama administration declared states of emergency in Flint.
Once high lead levels began to be found in September 2015, Del Toral wrote an e-mail to other EPA officials saying, “This is no surprise. Lead lines + no treatment = high lead in water = lead poisoned children.” But McCarthy and other EPA officials suggested state officials with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality refused to move more quickly on recommendations by the agency and that there wasn’t enough evidence of a widespread problem to implement a more urgent approach.
At the time, an exhaustive look at EPA emails by the Free Press found that agency officials knew of the potential dangers and pressed the state to move but waited months for legal advice before issuing a memo, in November 2015, that made it clear corrosion controls were required. It would take two more months before the EPA formally stepped in to take over the response to the crisis in Flint.
Her dismal job as former EPA head notwithstanding, the expected nomination of McCarthy was praised by people in the environmental community, however. An official at the League of Conservation Voters, Tiernan Sittenfeld, praised McCarthy as a “true climate star,” while Lisa Ramsden, senior climate campaigner for Greenpeace, called McCarthy “a seasoned environmental advocate.”
After leaving the EPA, McCarthy became president and chief executive officer of the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental action organization based in Washington.