Hillary Clinton hedged when asked directly if she would fire the head of the Environmental Protection Agency over the Flint, Michigan, water crisis if she were president, saying she didn't "know how high it goes," while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) was far more direct in his response at Sunday night's CNN debate.
Clinton and Sanders both called for Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, to resign earlier in the debate held in Flint, but Anderson Cooper told Clinton the federal government had "also dropped the ball."
"According to Section 1414 of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA has to step in and take action when a state is informed about water problems and doesn't do anything for 30 days, as the state here didn't do," Cooper said. "The EPA knew for months and months, never warned the people of Flint not to drink the water. As president, would you fire the head of the EPA?"
"Well, I think that the people here in the region who knew about this and failed to follow, what you just said rightly, the law required, have been eliminated from the EPA," Clinton said.
"So far, one person has resigned," Cooper said.
"Well, I don't know high it goes," Clinton said. "I would certainly be launching an investigation. I think there is one. I was told that some of the higher-ups were pushing to get changes that were not happening, so I would have a full investigation, determine who knew what when, and yes, people should be fired. How far up it went, I don't know, but as far as it goes, they should be relieved, because they failed this city.
"But let me just add this, Anderson. This is not the only place where this kind of action is needed. We have a lot of communities right now in our country where the level of toxins in the water, including lead, are way above what anybody should tolerate. We have a higher rate of tested lead in people in Cleveland than in Flint, so I'm not satisfied with just doing everything we must do for Flint. I want to tackle this problem across the board, and if people know about it, and they're not acting, and they're in the government at any level, they should be fired."
Sanders was more direct when Cooper posed the same hypothetical if he was president.
"President Sanders would fire anybody who knew about what was happening and did not act appropriately," Sanders said, to loud applause. "And President Sanders would make the point that how does it happen in the wealthiest country in the history of the world? What are our priorities when, among others, Republicans today are fighting for hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the wealthiest people."