To help residents recover from devastating water crises, Senate lawmakers are close to moving on legislation to provide millions of dollars in assistance to Flint, Mich., and cities like it.
Senate leaders, including James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), have a developed a bill that would be voted on independently from the Energy Modernization Act, a bipartisan comprehensive package that was expected to pass easily but, instead, stalled over how much financial assistance should go to Flint.
The amendment providing funding to Flint was added to the energy bill in early February, but some GOP lawmakers balked at the $600-million price tag.
The deal reached on Feb. 24 calls for $100 million for drinking-water state revolving funds (SRFs) that can be used by any states with a drinking-water emergency;
$70 million to back secured loans made under the new Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), which could be used to leverage up to $4.2 billion to address water and wastewater needs; and $50 million for various health programs to address lead exposure. The additional funds would be offset by cutting $250 million from the Advanced Technical Vehicles Manufacturing loan program. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to consider the bill the week of Feb. 29.
Meanwhile, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), along with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, will testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on March 17.
Although many lawmakers and Flint residents blame the governor for much of the city’s woes, EPA has received its share of criticism. On Feb. 16, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) released a report that faulted EPA for not using its authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to bring Flint’s failing water system into compliance. CRS said the SDWA requires EPA to notify non-compliant states and water systems and provide assistance to bring both into compliance. “After 30 days, if the state has not initiated enforcement action, EPA must do so. EPA has not used this authority in Flint,” noted CRS.
Marc Edwards—a Virginia Tech engineering professor who has been a vocal critic of the EPA since Washington, D.C.’s water crisis in the early 2000s—told ENR that EPA has turned a blind eye to lapses in implementing the Lead and Copper Rule, the primary regulation requiring utilities to ensure that lead does not leach into drinking-water systems. He said utilities do not implement the rule properly and that EPA does not enforce it. “I think a message was sent from EPA that [non-compliance] would be tolerated,” he said, adding, “EPA’s attitude has permeated a significant fraction of the water industry.”
He added that he was not surprised to see what happened in Flint. “We’ve been screaming about this for 10 years,” he said.
Lead in water-supply systems is not unique to Flint. Recently, elevated levels have been observed in Sebring, Ohio. On Feb. 24, officials in Jackson, Miss., told local residents that pregnant women and children should avoid local drinking water; a sampling of 100 homes in January found that a small percentage had lead levels above 15 parts per billion, the level that triggers action under the SDWA.