Congress approves at least $120M for Flint water fix

Detroit Free Press

Dec. 11–WASHINGTON — In some of its last votes of the year, the U.S. Senate early this morning finally approved legislation that will be worth more than $120 million to Flint and its effort to respond to an ongoing public health crisis linked to high lead levels in its tap water.

In a series of votes late Friday night and early this morning, the Senate passed a so-called continuing resolution to fund government through April 28 of next year and national water infrastructure legislation, two bills that together included provisions to authorize and pay for long-sought funding for Flint and provide $170 million or more to help address concerns of lead in drinking water.

â–º Related: Federal judge to Michigan: You must deliver bottled water to Flint

“We have people in a crisis situation. This bill needs to get passed for them,” U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said shortly before a key procedural vote was taken about 12:30 a.m. Final passage followed on a 78-21 vote that concluded about 1:15 a.m.; the bills next go to President Barack Obama, who was expected to sign both.

“Though the State of Michigan has the primary responsibility to support long-term recovery efforts in Flint, the federal government should have stepped in long ago to provide emergency assistance for an American city in crisis,” U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said after the vote.

Heading into Friday, the fate of the bills was in doubt, with some Democrats raising questions about the failure to provide health benefits to retired miners past April in the spending resolution and, in the water resources bill, a provision to provide drought relief in California in such a way that environmentalists argued could hurt waterways and fish habitat.

But with the U.S. House having left Washington for the year and a government shutdown looming, enough Democrats embraced both pieces of legislation to allow them to pass in the Republican-led Senate. Democrats and some key Republicans had been fighting to secure funding for Flint to replace old lead water pipes for months.

For most of the past year, Michigan’s congressional delegation — led by Stabenow, Peters and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township — have been pressing for funding for Flint, where lead levels in the tap water spiked after the city changed water supplies in 2014.

When that change occurred, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed to require the necessary corrosion control treatments, allowing lead to leach out of miles of old service pipes throughout the city into residents’ taps.

â–º Related: Michigan paid more than FEMA for Flint emergency supplies

While lead levels have fallen in recent months and filtered water has been deemed safe to drink — the city switched back to Detroit-supplied water more than a year ago and Obama issued an emergency declaration last January — Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and others say the only way confidence in the city water system will be restored is to replace all the lead pipes and make other repairs to local infrastructure.

“Our tap water still is not safe to drink without using a filter, an unfathomable situation for any city in this great nation,” Weaver said. “This package will help us replace far more lead-tainted pipes … and provide resources to the thousands of Flint children who have suffered.”

“Flint families have waited far too long for their government to provide real relief as they continue to recover from this ongoing water crisis,” said Kildee, who nonetheless called the vote on the legislation “welcome news.”

The legislation passed earlier this week by the U.S. House — where U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, was also a key player in getting the bill moved — and this morning by the Senate includes $100 million in grants for any state where an emergency declaration has been issued for lead in the drinking water — a qualification that only applies to Michigan and Flint at this point.

It also will allow more than $20 million in debt incurred by Flint for earlier water infrastructure repairs to be forgiven and fund $20 million for a national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention registry intended to help monitor people who have suffered from high lead levels. Another $30 million will go into lead poisoning prevention and health and nutrition services for people whose health may have been compromised.

The legislation also includes another $20 million for low-interest loans to improve water infrastructure — loans that can be used to replace lead lines and make other improvements, but that’s not tied specifically to Flint.

â–º Related: How Flint’s water crisis unfolded

International attention was brought to bear on the crisis in Flint after Obama issued his emergency declaration and federal officials dispatched teams to Flint to take control of the situation. Health officials there had determined in September 2015 that blood lead levels among children had skyrocketed since the city switched water supplies because of the lead in the water. Increased cases of Legionnaire’s disease also were linked to the switch.

The fight for Flint funding dates to early in the year, when Stabenow and Peters fought unsuccessfully to have an appropriation attached to an energy bill. Ultimately, they succeeded in getting it included in a sweeping Water Resources Development Act, with the support of Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.

“Without this authorization in this bill, there would be no Flint relief … Without this bill there would be nothing for Flint,” said Inhofe, as he battled against Democratic objections to the bill by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and some other western Democrats based on the drought provision.

The legislation also requires the federal Environmental Protection Agency to warn the public within 24 hours of high lead levels in drinking water if a state fails to do so.

“This is a very long, hard-fought victory,” said Stabenow. “This agreement achieves what we set out to accomplish from the beginning — pass urgently needed funding to help repair and replace drinking water infrastructure in Flint and other communities, and address the health care needs of children and families.”

Contact Todd Spangler: 703-854-8947 or at tspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tsspangler.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.