The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund legislation is being discussed in the Upper House and, if passed in its current state, would allocate $100 million to any state that has received an emergency declaration.
(TNS) -- Bipartisan legislation that could provide potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to help replace aging water lines in Flint, Mich., was filed in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, representing perhaps the best chance of raising federal funds to address concerns over high levels of lead found in the city’s drinking water.
Under the proposal, the federal Drinking Water State Revolving Fund would be authorized to make up to $100 million in subsidized loans or grants between now and October 2017 “to any state that receives an emergency declaration … to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in a public drinking water system.”
Written in such a way, the measure avoids a congressional prohibition on earmarking funds for any specific project, while clearly aiming the money at Flint. President Barack Obama in January signed an emergency declaration for the state of Michigan due to the high lead levels in water found in Flint and Genesee County.
The proposal — worth $220 million in total — also provides $70 million in subsidies which could be used to back more than $700 million in low-interest financing for water infrastructure projects through a newly created fund, some of which could be used in Flint but which is intended to spark repairs and replacement of aging water systems across the U.S.
It also authorizes $50 million for public health, though that funding is not specific to Flint, including $17.5 million to monitor the health effects of lead contamination in municipal water; and allows the state of Michigan to use the $25.9 million it has received under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund earlier this year to cover $22 million Flint already owes for earlier government loans to repair and replace parts of its water system.
But the proposal, pushed by Michigan U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats, as well as Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and others, is still not assured of passage in the divided chamber, though it could get voted on — either as a standalone bill or an addition to already-passed House legislation — as early as Thursday or possibly next week.
“This has been a long effort, we’ve been working in a bipartisan way,” Peters said. “We’re hoping to get a vote soon.”
Flint’s water woes can be traced back to a decision to switch to using more corrosive water from the Flint River as its water source in April 2014 and a decision by the state Department of Environmental Quality not to require corrosion controls, which apparently allowed lead to leach from old pipes. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver is lobbying for a quick replacement of Flint’s unknown number of lead lines and damaged infrastructure, a job that has been estimated to cost anywhere from $700 million to more than $1 billion.
Stabenow and Peters had been pushing earlier this month for an amendment to a comprehensive energy bill for as much as $400 million in matching funds for infrastructure repairs in Flint and another $200 million for the creation of a center to study the effects of high levels of lead in the Flint water on children. But Republicans balked, saying adequate levels of funding weren’t available.
Democrats then held up the energy bill, ensuring that negotiations on Flint would continue. But even with some bipartisan support for the new measure, which could potentially be attached to recently passed House legislation requiring federal notification to residents in high-lead areas when the state does not make the public aware, it was uncertain whether there was enough Republican backing for it to pass.
Inhofe called the plan a “common-sense, fully-funded solution” that allows grants and low-interest loans to be used to address the situation in Flint. It would be paid for by reducing subsidies to cover loans that would have been made after 2020 under the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program, which was created to help automakers or suppliers produce more fuel-efficient vehicles, though critics have complained that few loans have been made in recent years.
“This legislation is not just about Flint, but is about the nation as a whole. The media’s attention to Flint has put a spotlight on the crisis we face across the nation due to a failure to address aging water infrastructure,” Inhofe said, while criticizing the Obama administration for not dedicating more funding to low-interest loan funds to address old water systems. “Stories are emerging in East Los Angeles, Baltimore, communities across Ohio, and elsewhere about lead pipes and other infrastructure problems that put the health of our citizens at risk.”
The proposal requires that before receiving any of the $100 million funds through the Drinking Water Revolving Fund, a potential recipient must provide the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a detailed report on how the funding would be used and it must be approved by the EPA before financing is obligated. All funds not obligated in 18 months would be transferred for use in a new fund being created to help pay for low-interest water infrastructure loans across the country.
In Michigan, that could mean that the state and city official are going to have to come to an agreement on how best to proceed. Gov. Rick Snyder has hired an engineering firm to study Flint’s water system and do a pilot project replacing some 30 lines with an eye toward a larger-scale replacement program. Weaver, Flint’s mayor, says residents who are drinking filtered and bottled water, are running out of patience and need an accelerated replacement effort.
“I would want this done as quickly as possible,” said Stabenow, adding that she agrees with Weaver in terms of a quick turnaround though acknowledging that it will be up to the state to apply for the federal funding. “They’re going to have to sort out how this process moves forward but it needs to happen as soon as possible.”
The proposal also includes the House-passed provisions requiring EPA to notify the public after 15 days if sufficiently high lead levels are detected and a state does not do so on its own. The $50 million in public health money also provides $2.5 million in funding for a committee to review federal efforts related to lead poisoning and appropriates $10 million each to the Centers for Disease Control’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Fund, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Healthy Homes Program and the federal Healthy Start Initiative for childhood development.
Finally, it also requires the attorney general and the EPA inspector general to report to Congress on the status of investigations into the state and federal responses to the contamination of Flint’s drinking water supply.
©2016 Detroit Free Press Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.