The passage of the Water Resources Development Act for pledges funding for pipe replacement in Flint, Michigan as well as preventative measure to avoid another water crisis.
(TNS) -- The U.S. Senate passed sweeping legislation Thursday authorizing water-related projects around the nation, including at least $100 million to replace and repair lead water pipes in Flint.
Passage of the Water Resources Development Act for this year had been widely expected since it had bipartisan support in the Senate. But with legislative days running out in an election year and much yet to be done — including passing legislation to fund the government — the bill and its Flint funding have an uncertain future in the U.S. House, which would still have to pass it for it to be sent to President Barack Obama and be signed into law.
The legislation is the result of months of effort by U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both D-Mich., who had repeatedly been beaten back on attempts to get funding passed for Flint, where skyrocketing levels of lead in the drinking water were detected by experts more than a year ago and higher blood-lead levels were detected in children.
Flint's drinking water woes continue — nine months after the president declared an emergency there — with people still drinking bottled or filtered water, though the water quality has improved. State and local officials, including Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, say they believe confidence in the drinking water system won't be restored until all of its miles of old lead pipe and fixtures throughout the city are replaced.
"It's unconscionable that we have entered into Year 3 that we can't turn on the faucets and have clean water," Weaver said Wednesday in Washington at a news conference in advance of the Senate vote, referring to the fact that the high lead levels trace to the April 2014 decision by an emergency financial manager to switch to using Flint River water. When the switch happened, the state Department of Environmental Quality failed to require corrosion-control treatments, which allowed the more corrosive water to leach lead from old pipes into the city's taps.
Despite uncertainties about what comes next in the House — where a water resources bill passed out of committee but has not yet been voted on among the full membership and does not include the Flint money — Stabenow and Peters said they were pleased their efforts in the Senate were successful.
“Today’s passage is an important reminder to the nation that the crisis in Flint is far from over," Stabenow said. "Families still cannot drink the unfiltered water that comes out of their faucets. Now our colleagues in the House need to act as quickly as possible. It's also essential that the State of Michigan fully meet its responsibilities to solve the water crisis.”
The state has earmarked about $27 million for pipe replacement in Flint, though Weaver and other Democrats say much more is needed.
"Flint residents have been living with contaminated water for far too long and are still relying on bottled water and filters for drinking, cooking and bathing,” Peters said. “I am pleased the Senate came together to pass this bipartisan, fully-paid-for legislation to provide much-needed support for Flint families."
Gov. Rick Snyder praised passage of the Flint funding and said he had spoken with U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which spearheaded the bill, about the need for it.
“Federal, state and local officials continuing to work together are going to help restore Flint and help the people of Flint recover," Snyder said. "I hope the House will act quickly in taking up this legislation.”
Inhofe said despite concerns that Democrats may vote against a water resources bill in the House if it does not include the Flint money — potentially derailing it — he would "promise to address" Flint in a conference committee to hammer out differences between the chambers' versions of the legislation if it comes to that. He also noted that he has been working with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who supports the Flint funding, to make sure it is secured.
"I’ve been standing with my colleagues in Michigan from the beginning on our fiscally responsible solution to help the Flint community, and will continue to do so as we enter conference," he said. "Let me be clear: It would be a short-sighted mistake for those that are trying to help the people of Flint to prevent the quick movement of (the bill) in the House so that we can conference immediately."
Asked about the bill and the Flint money at the White House on Thursday, press secretary Josh Earnest said the Obama administration supports additional funds for Michigan and Flint but that it was up to Congress to decide how that should be done legislatively.
Upton called the Senate vote "an important milestone" and said he'd continue working to secure funding for Flint — though he did not say whether that would be as part of the water resources bill or not.
Under the measure approved by the Senate, $100 million would be made available for lead pipe replacement and other infrastructure improvements to any community where an emergency has been declared because of lead levels in the water — a condition that currently only applies to Flint. It would also authorize a grant program worth $300 million over five years through which communities across the U.S. would apply for funding to replace lead service lines, as well as to pay for lead testing, corrosion control and education.
Overall, the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 is a sweeping bill that touches on projects from harbor maintenance to dam construction, but also includes a series of water-quality measures, including those for Flint. As written, it also would:
Stabenow has said that the funding in the legislation is expected to cover about half of what is needed overall to replace lead pipes and fixtures in Flint; both she, Peters and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, have called on the state to guarantee the remainder.
Michigan's automakers would potentially lose some funding to help pay for the legislation: It calls for offsetting the cost of aid by recouping — after 2020 — $300 million in unspent funds set aside to help automakers and others develop advanced technology vehicles.
Kildee said Wednesday the funding needs to be approved as soon as possible so that residents there can take comfort that the system, at last, will be fixed.
"That's a message that needs to be sent as soon as possible," he said.
©2016 the Detroit Free Press Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.