House debates bill on EPA notification of lead danger

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — House lawmakers voted 416-2 on Wednesday to pass a Flint-related bill that would clarify when the Environmental Protection Agency should notify the public when concentrations of lead or other contaminants in drinking water exceed safe levels.

The legislation, co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, and Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, was supported by the entire 14-member Michigan delegation in the House. The two members who opposed it were Republican Reps. Todd Rokita of Indiana and Thomas Massey of Kentucky.

The bill was in response to the inaction of the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which for months didn’t alert Flint residents of the health risks posed by the leaching of lead from service lines into the city’s drinking water supply.

“I wish this bill was not necessary but it is,” Upton said on the House floor Wednesday.

“Government officials knew there was a serious cause of concern and yet failed to warn the people of Flint. And many of those officials didn’t seem to be effectively communicating or sharing data among themselves. ... That’s got to be fixed, and it’s got to be fixed now.”

The Safe Drinking Water Act Improved Compliance Awareness Act would direct the EPA to notify state officials of the detected contamination within 24 hours. If the state doesn’t alert the public in 24 hours, then the EPA may do so.

“The bill today would not only empower but require the EPA to provide public notice if the state agency fails to provide public notice when data shows that there is a problem with lead levels in the water,” Kildee told reporters on Capitol Hill.

“It’s one of the ways we could have prevented this, had there not been confusion about the clear authority of the federal agency when a state has primacy of enforcement — to essentially blow the whistle on state failure.”

A similar Senate measure proposed 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 the public.

The bill’s introduction followed reports by The Detroit News that an EPA water expert, Miguel Del Toral, initially identified potential problems with Flint's drinking water in February 2015 and kept raising alarms through June.

The EPA prodded the state DEQ to respond and take preventative steps, but it didn’t. Then-Midwest Region 5 EPA chief Susan Hedman downplayed a memo that Del Toral sent to Flint’s mayor about the issue in late June.

She sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action by the state, but that opinion wasn’t completed until November after the state had acknowledged problem and switched Flint back to Detroit’s water system. Hedman resigned Feb. 1.

President Barack Obama has asked the EPA to clarify rules and procedures on the relationship between federal and state officials, so the federal agency is not expected to keep private information critical to public health.

“We certainly do want to make sure that local agencies understand the kind of relationship that they have with the EPA, and that EPA officials understand the responsibility that they have to go public with information that could have significant consequences on public health,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters this week.

“That certainly is one step that we can take to be proactive on this.”

The House bill would also require the EPA to create a strategic plan for improving the flow of communication among water utilities and operators, Upton noted.

Kildee said the EPA bill alone doesn’t do enough and urged his colleagues to take up his other legislation, which calls for $765 million in short- and long-term investments in Flint, while requiring matching funds from the Michigan Legislature.

“I applaud today’s action but hope it is only a first step in addressing this crisis,” Kildee said. “While it’s clear that the state created this man-made crisis, the federal government has in its capacity to help. Congress must act without delay to help Flint families get the immediate and long-term resources they need to recover.”

The Kildee 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.

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