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Michigan lawmakers unite on Flint aid initiatives

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The Michigan congressional delegation united Thursday on a water contamination initiative, while the state’s two Democratic senators maneuvered for more time to negotiate with Senate Republicans on federal aid for Flint.

U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, introduced a bill to clarify when the Environmental Protection Agency should notify the public when concentrations of lead in drinking water exceed safe levels.

The bill would direct the EPA to notify the state of the contamination within 24 hours. If the state doesn’t tell the public in 24 hours, then the EPA may do so. A similar bill by Democratic U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township sets a period of 15 days for the EPA to notify public.

“What happened in Flint is simply unacceptable at all levels,” said Upton, who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. “Our bipartisan legislation will ensure consumers are not kept in the dark and makes certain the EPA fulfills their fundamental duty to warn the public of high lead levels.”

In the Senate, Democrats opposed letting a bipartisan energy bill advance for a vote until a comprise on Flint assistance is reached. The Thursday vote to end debate fell 14 votes short of the 60 votes needed.

“The cloture vote today is to shut off amendments. Give us some time,” Stabenow said on the Senate floor. “We’re asking colleagues to see (these children in Flint) — to hold them with as much value as children in your own family.”

After the motion failed, Republican Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas accused the Democrats of “showboating” and not making a good-faith effort to compromise.

The revised plan would, in part, provide $200 million to the EPA for direct grants to any state that has received a federal emergency declaration due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in a public drinking water supply. Peters stressed the measure would fund any state with contamination of drinking water — not just Flint.

“I hope we can reach agreement with our Republican colleagues, but we’re not there yet,” Peters said.

On Thursday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Energy Committee, proposed $550 million in aid to Flint, including $50 million for immediate use and the rest of which would have to be paid back.

“What we’re seeking to do is bridge the gap between what has been proposed, and what I believe the Senate can agree to,” she said.

Stabenow objected to Murkowski’s amendment, later explaining it would not provide enough aid up front to Flint, relying on loans through a fund that is months away from being set up.

Cornyn said it was putting the “cart before the horse” to vote on a Flint package before Michigan has crafted a plan for how it will repair the city’s water infrastructure.

Kildee has introduced another House bill of more than $700 million that calls for short- and long-term investments in Flint, while requiring matching funds from the Michigan Legislature.

The legislation would provide $385 million in direct grants for repair or replacement of public and private lead service lines, and would allow Michigan to forgive $21 million in existing water infrastructure loans owed by the city of Flint.

Another provision would provide $125 million for Head Start and Early Start education for Flint children exposed to lead, as well as $5 million for health centers at all Flint schools and $5 million for mental health services for Flint families and children affected by lead exposure.

The bill also calls for $90 million for initiatives such as reduced class sizes, additional personnel, special education services and citywide after-school programs for Flint children exposed to lead.