The federal government has reacted to lead- contaminated drinking water in Flint, Mich., with a gush of legislative and regulatory actions.
The crisis, which affected 100,000 families, began after the
city stopped buying treated water from Detroit in 2014 and
switched to Flint River water until a pipeline could be completed in 2017 to bring in Lake Huron water. The Flint River
water was more corrosive than Detroit’s, and because Flint
did not add phosphates, lead was leached from household
fixtures and service lines to homes.
In January, President Barack Obama signed a $5 million
emergency measure to abate Flint’s problems. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) invoked its Safe Drinking
Water Act emergency powers, allowing it to intervene in the
case of a public health threat.
EPA ordered the state and city to take steps to counteract
the contamination and provide full information to the public.
A team of EPA specialists also began testing water quality and
advising local officials.
The House of Representatives quickly passed a bill sponsored
by Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) and the full Michigan delegation.
It requires EPA to ensure that the public is quickly notified when
dangerous concentrations of lead are detected in drinking water.
A much different Senate bill hit an impasse. Michigan’s
senators offered a $600 million relief package for Flint as an
amendment to a pending energy policy bill. When Republican
senators objected that the federal government should not pay
for Flint’s infrastructure repairs, Democratic senators refused
to let the energy bill advance.
After some delay, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of
the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sen.
Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) offered a compromise. Although
not specifically a Flint relief package, the legislation could be
used to help the city anyway.
The bill would add $100 million to the Drinking Water State
Revolving Fund (SRF). Those additional funds would be available
to any community submitting an acceptable plan to alleviate a
drinking water emergency. Money unallocated after 18 months
would be added to the general drinking water SRF fund.
The bill also would appropriate $70 million to the new and
yet-unfunded Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act
and $50 million for federal health programs addressing lead exposure. Again, neither provision contained an earmark for Flint.
“Using these existing, authorized programs is the fiscally
responsible thing to do not only for Flint but also for the entire
nation facing a water infrastructure crisis,” Inhofe said.
One problem was that the compromise would be funded
by $250 million transferred from the under-used Advanced
Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program. The Congressional Budget Office objected to that shift and Senate
sponsors were seeking a remedy.
A consequence of the Flint crisis was that Congress might
order EPA to expedite a revision of the Lead and Copper Rule
planned for next year. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced a bill directing EPA to issue a rule within six months.
Eight water groups pledged they would share information
and develop a collaborative response to the Flint crisis. They
were the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the
Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the National Association
of Water Companies, the U.S. Water Alliance, the Water Environment Federation, the Water Environment Research Foundation and the Water Research Foundation.
“We want to ensure that the response to this crisis is swift
and substantial — and that lessons learned from it are shared
broadly,” the eight said.
“The water sector organizations understand that we must
also help lead and shape a broader dialogue on the massive water infrastructure needs facing America and the appropriate policy steps to guarantee a sustainable and strong
local-state-federal partnership to address them. We also understand that affordability issues are playing a larger role in
providing fundamental drinking water and clean water services to our communities, and that this too will need to be a
key topic of this broader discussion,” they said.
AWWA also launched a website to provide information on
lead service lines, the Lead and Copper Rule, corrosion control
and other lead management issues.
The Value of Water Coalition conducted a poll in January as
the Flint crisis unfolded. It reported that 95 percent of respondents thought it was important or very important to invest in
water systems so the Flint crisis is not repeated. Sixty percent
said they would accept higher water bills for water infrastructure improvements. WW
About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for
21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for
the past 15 years. Crow is now an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.
Flint Water Crisis Spurs
Federal Legislation, Rules
BY PATRICK CROW