Flint funding clears U.S. House committee

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

The U.S. House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday advanced a 2017 spending plan that could help cities like Flint improve drinking water and upgrade related infrastructure.

The $32.1 billion Interior and Environment Appropriations bill includes $2.1 billion for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, up $207 million over current levels, along with a provision that U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, says would allow Michigan to forgive $21 million in loans previously extended to Flint.

The bill includes a $7.7 million increase in funding for state grants to improve the operations and oversight of drinking water systems and $6.5 million for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assist communities as they plan to replace lead pipes.

Flint residents continue to rely on bottled and filtered water for their daily needs due to lead contamination.

“Congress must keep its focus on Flint and ensure that families get the resources they need to recover from this man-made crisis,” Kildee said in a statement highlighting his efforts to secure the funding in the Republican-controlled House.

“Allowing Flint to forgive past drinking water fund loans, in addition to prioritizing the replacement of lead pipes with new federal funds, could help Flint greatly improve its drinking water system.”

The House water aid is smaller than Senate legislation containing a $220 million Flint-inspired aid package that cleared a key U.S. Senate committee in late April.

The Senate measure, promoted by Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township, includes $100 million for subsidized loans for water infrastructure improvements. But it only applies to any state that receives a federal emergency declaration due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in a public drinking water supply system — which applies to Flint but could eventually apply to others.

Another $70 million would be applied toward financing costs for up to $700 million in secured loans for water infrastructure across the country. About $50 million would be directed toward national health programs for efforts such as health registry and more funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Fund.

Republican Rep. Candice Miller of Harrison Township joined Kildee and other Michigan Democrats on a March letter to House appropriations subcommittee chairs urging support for the drinking water revolving fund programs.

The federally funded programs allow states to provide loans to local communities or utilities for the improvement or replacement of water pipelines, treatment plans or other infrastructure.

Miller called Wednesday’s House Appropriations Committee vote “an important step” toward helping replace lead-contaminated infrastructure in Flint, improve the city’s drinking water supply and treat residents who may have been exposed to lead.

“The tragedy in Flint has truly been a failure of government at every level, and while there is plenty of blame to go around, right now, the people of Flint need solutions,” Miller said in a statement. “… These are children, American children, and they need our help. I will continue to do everything I can to ensure they get it.”

The legislation advanced Wednesday specifies that a state could forgive an existing revolving fund loan if it “determines that such funds could be used to help address a threat to public health from heightened exposure to lead in drinking water.”

Kildee first began pushing for Flint loan forgiveness in March 2015, when he wrote EPA Director Gina McCarthy and said that loan payments have prevented the city from making other necessary investments in its water infrastructure.

The appropriations bill includes $50 million for a new Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program that provides low-interest rate financing for large projects managed by the EPA.

Mayor Karen Weaver said the appropriations bill would help Flint “tremendously” with loan forgiveness and pipe replacement efforts. She urged support in the full House and Senate “so residents of Flint will see that they haven’t been forgotten.”

“We didn’t deserve what happened here, but we do deserve all the help we can get to right this wrong,” Weaver said in a statement.