Senate Democrats are asking Congress to commit more than $70 billion over the next decade to update the country’s water infrastructure and help local water utilities replace lead pipes, in response to drinking water contamination in Flint, Mich., and other communities.
The announcement of new legislation on Wednesday came as a Michigan judge authorized criminal charges against three local and state officials involved in decisions that led to the drinking water crisis in Flint.
“What happened in Flint is a national disgrace,” California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said at a news conference. “It sears our souls, and it can happen again.”
“A great nation does not have a third world water supply,” added Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. “A great nation does not knowingly or negligently give its children or families poisoned water.”
Mistakes by state and federal regulators when the city switched its water supplier in April 2014 left residents exposed to lead in their drinking water for months. The tap water is still considered unsafe to drink, and residents have been reluctant to use it for bathing despite encouragement from scientists and government officials.
Michigan’s Democratic senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, had reached an agreement with Senate Republicans to insert funds into an energy bill to help Flint replace the corroded pipes leaching lead into the water supply. But that measure was blocked by GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.
The stand-alone bill, known as the TRUE LEADership Act, was introduced by Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin with 27 Democratic co-sponsors. It provides a combination of loans, grants and tax credits to individuals and public entities that would offset the price of replacing both publicly and privately owned lead service lines.
[Read the bill (pdf)]
The bill would also increase the amount of money the federal government provides to states to help them comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. And it would improve the way states track and report elevated levels of lead in children’s blood, among other provisions.
A spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the senator was reviewing the legislation.
In the House, a bill to help Flint replace its corroded pipes remains stalled, part of what House Democrats decried Wednesday as the GOP’s “agenda of inaction.”
“It’s tough to stand here again and talk about this crisis in my home town, especially when what I hear from my Republican colleagues and even Republican leaders is great sympathy for the 100,000 people of my home town,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents Flint. “It’s almost as if they feel their obligation is to send their good wishes — basically to send Flint a get well card.”
While the Flint-related legislation has won support from some GOP lawmakers, who represent districts with water contamination issues, others have been reluctant to commit to far-reaching public works projects.
Some argue that since state officials have been found at fault in Flint, the state should be responsible for paying for the damage. Congressional action has thus been limited to a series of fact-finding hearings and official visits.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced Wednesday that one city official and two state officials would face criminal charges in connection with the situation in Flint. The charges include tampering with evidence of lead contamination, willful neglect of duty as a public officer, misconduct in office and violations of the Safe Water Drinking Act.
Schuette said the officials misled residents and the EPA about the levels of lead leaching into the water.
“They had a duty to protect the health and safety of the families of Flint,” he said at a news conference. “They failed.”
Flint residents said they were pleased to see charges filed, but that wasn’t enough to fix the problems.
“People should go to jail for what’s happened in Flint — but that doesn’t change the fact that we need our pipes fixed today,” Tony Palladeno, a resident said in a news release. “Our homes are worth nothing, businesses have closed. Governor [Rick] Snyder is responsible, as the person in charge, and he needs to fix every pipe in Flint, with local labor, to rebuild our city.”
Peters said the charges convinced him of the urgency of helping Flint.
“It doesn’t matter if this was a man-made disaster or a natural disaster,” the Michigan senator said. “It is a disaster to the people of Flint and if there was criminal activity involved it is even more imperative for us to step up.”