Snyder urges ‘immediate’ passage of $220M Flint aid bill

Melissa Nann Burke and Jonathan Oosting The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is asking Congress to pass “immediately” the Flint-related bipartisan legislation pending in the Senate “so we can further protect the health and safety of Flint families.”

It marks the first time the Republican governor has publicly called on the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate to act on the legislation that has stalled in the chamber.

Snyder’s comments appeared in prepared testimony for his Thursday appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday morning. Snyder is scheduled to appear before the committee alongside Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy.

“The buck stops with our two witnesses here today. We need to understand how the system failed the residents of Flint so badly,” Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, says in his prepared opening statement. “But more importantly, we need to understand what is being done to fix the problem and help the people of Flint recover from this tragedy.”

Snyder has not previously expressed public support for the Senate measure, which is co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township, as well as Republicans Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Rob Portman of Ohio.

The $220 million bill includes $100 million for subsidized loans for water infrastructure improvements through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for any state with a federal emergency declaration due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in the public drinking water supply. Flint is the only community that now fits the definition.

The legislation stalled because of a legislative hold placed by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, delaying a vote in the underlying energy bill.

Lee and Stabenow have been negotiating technical details over the source of funding for the provision, a stimulus program for automakers to upgrade facilities to make more technologically advanced vehicles.

The Stabenow-Peters plan would pay for the Flint provision by phasing out the loan program in 2020, but Lee wants the Flint aid paid for earlier.

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In his testimony, Snyder reiterates his determination to fix the lead-contamination problem and explains what actions his administration is taking “to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

The state Legislature has approved $67 million in aid to address the Flint water crisis, including money to help reduce resident water bills and help the city switch back to Detroit water.

In his recent executive budget proposal, Snyder called for another $165 million for Flint this year and next. House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said this month he does not anticipate approving additional funding until the 2017 state budget, which would take effect in October.

Snyder said his administration has uncovered “systemic failures” at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, where “bureaucrats created a culture that valued technical compliance over common sense — and the result was that lead was leaching into residents’ water.”

Snyder said he’s committed to a “complete and comprehensive change in state government that puts public health and safety first,” which is why last week he called for an investigation of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services by the auditor general and the inspector general.

“Let me be blunt. This was a failure of government at all levels. Local, state and federal officials — we all failed the families of Flint,” Snyder writes.

“This is not about politics or partisanship. I am not going to point fingers or shift blame. There is plenty of that to share, and neither will help the people of Flint.”

However, Snyder did criticize the “inefficient, ineffective and unaccountable bureaucrats at the EPA allowed this disaster to continue unnecessarily.”

“I am glad to be sitting next to the administrator from the EPA, because all of us must acknowledge our responsibility and be held accountable,” he writes.

“I do want to thank Miguel del Toral, a water specialist at the EPA, who spoke up early about the crisis. Tragically, his superiors at the EPA told local leaders in Flint to ignore his call for action.”

Snyder also emphasizes that many communities have potentially dangerous lead problems, and calls on agencies such as the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to change so similar tragedies can be prevented in other American cities.

Snyder plans to end his statement with a plea for the federal government to revisit what he called “the dumb and dangerous” Lead and Copper Rule, which was last revised in 2007. State regulators misinterpreted the rule and did not require Flint to add corrosion control treatments to river water it began using in April 2014.

“This is America, and this never should have happened,” Snyder says in the prepared remarks. “The American people deserve rules that make sense and professionals to enforce them who know that health and safety are urgent matters. I can make sure that happens in Michigan. You can make sure it happens for every American.”

In her prepared testimony, McCarthy committed to making sure a crisis like Flint doesn’t occur again.

As a nation, the U.S. has a “systemic problem” of underinvesting in “environmental justice” communities, she said.

“Not only are these underserved populations more vulnerable to the health impacts of pollution, but they often lack the tools and resources to do something about it,” McCarthy said.

“That’s what stacks the deck against a city like Flint. That’s what creates an environment where a crisis like this can happen.”

McCarthy attributes the problems in Flint to a state-appointed emergency manager deciding to switch to an untreated water supply, and then Michigan approving the move without requiring chemical treatment to keep the water from corroding the pipes and allowing lead to leach into the city’s drinking water.

McCarthy says that “looking back on Flint, from Day One, the state provided our regional office with confusing, incomplete and incorrect information.”

“Their interactions with us were intransigent, misleading and contentious,” McCarthy wrote.

That meant EPA staff didn’t grasp the potential scope of the lead problem in Flint until a year after the water source switch, and the agency had “insufficient information” to indicate a systemic lead problem until mid-summer of 2015, she said.

“While EPA did not cause the lead problem, in hindsight, we should not have been so trusting of the state for so long when they provided us with overly simplistic assurances of technical compliance, rather than substantive responses to our growing concerns,” McCarthy wrote.

She said the EPA repeatedly urged the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to address the lack of corrosion control but “missed the opportunity late last summer to quickly get EPA’s concerns on the public’s radar screen,” she said.

McCarthy noted actions she’s since taken to address the problem, including ordering a review of Department of Environmental Quality and its ability to implement the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as asking EPA’s inspector general to investigate her agency’s response to the Flint crisis.

She also sent letters to every governor and state environmental and health commissioner in the United States, asking them to work with EPA on infrastructure investments, transparency, technology, oversight, risk assessment and public education.

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