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The Politics of Lead Poisoning

 Weaver testified before Congress about the water issues in her city. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
 Weaver testified before Congress about the water issues in her city. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The mayor of Flint, Mich., appeared on Capitol Hill on a panel Wednesday that received a standing ovation before House Democrats. The governor of Michigan is facing a recall campaign back home. And lawmakers from other states are realizing that the contaminated water crisis in one community could have political costs elsewhere.  

That may explain, in part, the lopsided, 416-2 vote in the House to approve a bill Wednesday requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to inform residents within 24 hours when tests show their water is contaminated with lead. In Flint, the EPA identified problems nearly a year ago but spent months arguing with state officials before informing the public. In the Senate, Michigan Democrats are leading negotiations on an aid package that would help Flint replace corroded pipes and support children and families exposed to lead, but those efforts are stalled at least until after the February recess.  

“Any senator or any candidate for Senate that isn’t out there calling for more protections for drinking water is completely out of step and will do that at their peril,” said Madeleine Foote, legislative representative for the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, which has done polling about the popularity among voters of the EPA’s clean water rule. The group’s polling from May 2015 found that 80 percent of voters say they favor the rule, with 50 percent saying they “strongly favor” the rule. On Wednesday, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee held a hearing on the water crisis in that troubled city, featuring, among others, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver. At the end of the panel’s initial testimony, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged everyone to give a standing ovation to those who spoke.  

“This could happen anywhere,” Weaver said in an interview. “I’m sorry that we’re the example but I hope people are learning from what’s happening in the City of Flint.”  

The hearing was briefly interrupted for a vote on the bipartisan legislation sponsored by Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee and Michigan Republican Fred Upton. In addition to requiring notification, the bill also calls on the EPA to develop a strategic plan for coordinating information among water utilities, the states and consumers.  

The crisis has already cost one political leader his position. Dayne Walling was the mayor of Flint until last year when he lost to Weaver, who made clean water part of her platform. Walling noted that a large portion of people who voted in the mayor’s race hadn’t voted in a municipal or presidential elections.  

“The water crisis validated people’s frustrations,”  Walling said.  

Now, after watching his poll numbers drop since the water crisis in Flint was made public, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder faces a recall petition over how he has handled it.  

Kildee said the decision to recall Snyder is in the voters’ hands, though he has been asked if Snyder should step down. “My answer is that the governor should step up,” he said. “He should have a plan.” Kildee has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, but he has said he is focusing on the issues facing Flint.  

Now other politicians in other states are trying to be more responsive to water quality concerns. While the crisis in Flint has led to national scrutiny, the weakened state of the nation’s infrastructure has exposed the need to update government regulation.  

In neighboring Ohio, the village of Sebring has faced a similar problem with lead in water as the state’s Republican Gov. John Kasich campaigns for president, most recently in New Hampshire. Jim Lynch, communications director in the governor’s office, said he speaks with Kasich around three times a day about the situation in Sebring, and that he first spoke with Kasich 8 a.m. on the day Roll Call contacted Lynch.  

“The Kasich administration’s style is when people are in need, we throw all of the resources of state government to assist,” Lynch said.  

But Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said while he did not want to make his criticism of Kasich political and in some ways appreciated the tone Kasich brought to the presidential race, he thought the response was still lacking, particularly with the Ohio EPA.  

“I think it has more to do with the culture of the agency and the lack of the resources,” he said. He called the fact the Ohio EPA knew as early as August “outrageous.”  

John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Penn., and longshot candidate for the Democratic nomination for Senate, has highlighted the difficulties that he faced as mayor of a city that went through much of the difficulties that Flint did.  

“None of them live in a community like that,” he says in reference to his opponents. “I am mayor of one of the poorest communities.”  

Fetterman notes how Allegheny County, where Braddock is located, is under an EPA consent decree and how stormwater mixes with the sewage, which affects the rivers in the area. Fetterman notes that exposure to lead is the result of fiscal austerity by governments wanting to save money.  

“Seeing this in Flint is like ‘Yeah, doesn’t surprise me,’ sadly,” he said. “We need a champion. These communities are deserving of investment and deserving of our attention.”  

Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.
Contact Garcia at and follow him on Twitter at @EricMGarcia.
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