Flint Water Crisis Spurs Federal Legislation, Rules

The federal government has reacted to lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Mich., with a gush of legislative and regulatory actions.

By Patrick Crow

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.

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.

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