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U.S. Senate considers water bill including Flint aid

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The U.S. Senate this week has taken up a $9.4 billion water projects bill that includes emergency funding for updating water infrastructure in Flint and other communities faced with drinking-water contamination.

If approved, the bipartisan bill could bring up to $100 million for Michigan to use in Flint. Genesee County’s largest city, which has had lead-contaminated water for at least a year, is currently the only U.S. community that qualifies for this type of aid, but other cities might receive emergency declarations in the coming months and qualify.

The package, sponsored by Republican U.S. Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, passed the Environment and Public Works Committee by a 19-1 vote in late April.

As the Republican-controlled chamber began considering amendments to the package Thursday, Sen. Gary Peters said he hopes the Senate will hold a final vote next week on the legislation, known as the Water Resources Development Act.

“While floor time for this measure is overdue, what really matters is that we now have an agreement to move forward,” Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said on the Senate floor.

“ I urge my fellow senators to show the American people that we can continue to work together to address urgent needs across the country, invest in critical infrastructure and deliver much-needed — and fully paid for — support to Flint families.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who with Peters worked to include the Flint-inspired provisions in the legislation, noted that “the water’s still not fixed” in Flint.

“As Americans, we take it for granted that you’re going to turn on the faucet and that clean water’s going to come out and you can drink it,” Stabenow said on the floor.

“That has been shaken – that basic confidence in infrastructure – in Flint but also in other communities across the country. That’s something we’re addressing in this bill.”

The legislation includes $100 million for subsidized loans for water infrastructure improvements through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. It applies to any state with a federal emergency declaration due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in the public drinking water supply — which means just Flint at the moment.

Another $70 million would help finance costs for up to $700 million in secured loans for water infrastructure through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Fund at the Environmental Protection Agency. About $50 million would be directed toward a lead exposure registry and three children's health programs.

The provisions would be paid for by phasing out the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program early, in 2020. The stimulus program is for automakers to upgrade facilities to make more technologically advanced vehicles.

Inhofe said Thursday on the Senate floor that every $1 million of federal spending on drinking water and clean water infrastructure results in $2.95 million in increased American economic output.

“This is why we need to pass the WRDA bill now,” he said, adding that senators have until noon Friday to submit their amendments.

Earlier this year, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, held up similar Flint-inspired provisions attached as an amendment to the energy bill. Stabenow and Peters negotiated with Lee for weeks to no avail.

Lee has “substantive problems with WRDA outside of the Flint provisions and will not be voting for the bill,” spokesman Conn Carroll said.

He said Lee’s office is working with the Budget Committee to identify unpaid-for spending in the bill that may violate budget rules or exceed spending or revenue levels.

Stabenow and Peters both thanked Inhofe and Boxer this week for working with them to include help for Flint in the package.

The water-projects legislation would also formally establish in law the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which seeks to remedy environmental problems such as toxic pollutants, invasive species and nutrient runoff that creates harmful algae blooms.

The bill authorizes $300 million for the program over the next five years, Stabenow said.

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