Snyder unveils sweeping Flint plan

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder on Monday unveiled his most expansive plan yet for dealing with Flint’s water crisis, including an initiative welcomed by Republican lawmakers to create tougher drinking water standards above and beyond federal rules.

Snyder released a new 75-point action plan to address the contamination crisis, calling for a “much higher standard” for drinking water regulations but stopping short of advocating for complete replacement of all underground lead service lines in the city.

The plan includes short-, intermediate- and long-term goals, including making infrastructure improvements; creating a data-sharing agreement with state and federal environmental agencies; and setting up a protocol for a “drinkability declaration” for Flint water.

Snyder is particularly concerned about what he calls the “dumb and dangerous” federal Lead and Copper Rule, which sets the standard at which cities must take action to address excessive lead levels.

“My view is I want Michigan to be a role model for setting that standard, so I’m going to be calling for legislation to make that standard much higher,” the Republican governor told The Detroit News last week in an exclusive interview.

“I just wish Congress or the federal government would join me at the same time.”

House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, is “very interested” in building on the Lead and Copper Rule, said spokesman Gideon D’Assandro.

“This is definitely something that needs to be done,” D’Assandro said. “With the federal regulations, it’s not a matter of weak or strong, they’re just dumb and poorly written. Michigan can do a lot better there.”

Senate Republicans are also “open to exploring that option,” said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive. She noted the new Joint Select Committee on the Flint Water Public Health Emergency is likely to make policy recommendations later this year.

Flint’s contaminated water was caused, in part, by state regulators who did not properly interpret the federal rule for a city the size of Flint. They failed to ensure corrosion control chemicals were added when the city began using Flint River water in April 2014, and the harsh water ended up leaching lead from aging pipes.

Under the current rule, utilities and regulators must take action in a city only if more than 10 percent of samples from high-risk homes exceed the federal lead limit of 15 parts per billion. Experts say any level of lead exposure is dangerous, particularly for children, and Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards’ research highlighted testing results above 5 parts per billion lead.

“The federal government is basically saying you can have a high lead level for up to 10 percent of your population and it’s OK, and Gov. Snyder does not think that way,” spokesman Ari Adler said Monday.

Snyder is still working on details of his forthcoming policy recommendation on drinking water standards, said Adler, who noted that federal testing protocols are also an area of concern.

Snyder’s proposal might run into resistance depending on how stringent it is.

Raising standards could cost local governments, said Dan Gilmartin, president and CEO of the Michigan Municipal League. The group of city and township governments is already having discussions on water quality standards with the state and federal governments, he said.

“Looking at making sure we’ve got safe drinking water is at the top of people’s lists right now,” Gilmartin said. “We want to have that conversation, but when you raise standards you’ve got to work to those standards, and that requires investment.”

No call to ditch all lead lines

Edwards, who helped expose elevated lead levels in Flint water, has been highly critical of the federal rule and its enforcement. Snyder said he now considers Edwards “a mentor” on the issue.

Edwards has said the state “exploited loopholes” in the Lead and Copper Rule to hide lead levels in Flint.

The action plan unveiled Monday includes goals for health, infrastructure, education and economic development in the struggling city, where residents have relied on filters and bottled water for most daily needs since at least October.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, was meeting with affected residents in his hometown on Monday morning and had not yet reviewed the governor’s new plan, said spokeswoman Angela Wittrock.

“What he has heard over and over is that the people of Flint don’t want more paper from the governor: They want real accountability and action on immediate needs like having safe water,” Wittrock said.

The governor’s new plan does not call for the removal of all lead service lines in Flint, as Mayor Karen Weaver has proposed.

Stated infrastructure goals include an ongoing pilot project to replace 30 lines and an intermediate goal of partnering with the city to prioritize additional replacements based on water and elevated lead blood level test results.

The plan also calls for replacement of plumbing faucets and fixtures in public facilities and preparation of a “best practices approach” for city locations where water lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion, or children have blood lead levels greater than 5 micrograms per deciliter.

The state won’t necessarily limit eventual pipe removal assistance to those areas, Adler said, “but those are certainly the priority.” He noted that “the actual number of lead lines is still not completely known.”

Weaver welcomed the plan.

“I am glad to see the governor is thinking of ways to help Flint recover from the man-made water disaster,” she said in a statement.

But Weaver said she is “still waiting” for the Legislature to approve Snyder’s $165 million package for the city. “It will take all of that, plus additional funding from the federal government, to put us on the road to recovery,” she said.

Snyder and the state Legislature have approved $67 million in funding to address the Flint water crisis since October. Snyder has proposed another $165 million, but Cotter has said he is unlikely to consider additional supplemental requests before the next state budget, which would take effect in October.

Weaver wants to replace all lead-tainted service lines in the city and estimates that could be as many as 15,000, including galvanized steel pipes that also may have been damaged. There are 4,376 known lead service lines in the city, but records are old and incomplete.

Edwards, testifying last week before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Regulation, said it would be “desirable” for Flint to replace all lead service lines.

Edwards noted that Flint has more water main breaks per mile than most U.S. cities, which is one reason residential water bills are so high.

Snapshots from list

It remains a short-term goal to establish a data-sharing agreement with the state Department of Environmental Quality, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Edwards, along with protocols for an eventual drinkability declaration for Flint water.

Many short-term goals listed in the plan have been completed, according to Snyder’s office, which said state agencies hope to complete intermediate goals in the next 60-120 days, including:

■Partnering with the city and county to plan for future connection to the Karegnondi Water Authority.

■Partnering with Blue Cross Blue Shield to facilitate salad bars at 20 additional schools.

Long-term goals include:

■Validation that kids with elevated blood levels are being treated.

■Providing Flint kids under 6 with robust screening for behavioral health needs beyond initial testing.

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