Flint early warning bill lined up in Michigan Senate

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan cities who learn their water supply contains dangerous levels of lead would be required to alert residents within three days under an early-warning bill lined up for final passage this week in the state Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof’s Government Operations Committee on Wednesday unanimously advanced the House-approved measure. If the full Senate signs off before adjourning for the year Thursday, supporters say it would be the first major policy reform enacted in response to the ongoing Flint water contamination crisis.

“When you have impurity in your drinking source, we have to give the people a full opportunity to know not to drink the thing that could cause harm to them or their family,” said sponsoring Rep. Sheldon Neeley, a Flint Democrat and former city council member.

Current law requires the owner or operator of a public water plant to notify customers of any noncompliance with state drinking water standards, but it does not dictate a timeline.

The new proposal would require the operator to issue a public advisory within three business days of notification from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The alert could come via radio or television, notices delivered to customers or advisories posted in conspicuous areas throughout the community.

It’s unlikely the alert system would have prevented the crisis in Flint, where Michigan water regulators misinterpreted the federal Lead and Copper Rule and used sampling methods that likely obscured earlier discovery of elevated lead levels, according to a state task force.

Gov. Rick Snyder and legislators have approved more than $234 million in Flint-related aid since November 2015, when the state confirmed dangerous lead levels and first told residents not to drink from their taps without a filter.

But Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said Wednesday he is frustrated by the slow pace of the policy response. A special committee formed to study the crisis proposed a series of policy changes in October, but none of those changes are expected to make it through the Legislature by the end of the year.

“We want to make sure our community gets the justice and the support it needs, but we want to make sure everyone gets protected, and I was a very strong supporter of this,” Ananich said of the early warning legislation. “I think it’s a good first bill that we’ll get done policy-wise, and then we’ll work really hard next year to get more stuff done.”

The Joint Committee on the Flint Water Public Health Emergency proposed changes to the state’s controversial emergency manager law, tougher drinking water rules and more. Snyder has said the state should lead the nation in lead standards, and other Flint-related bills did not see a vote this year in the House Local Government committee.

Discussion on those proposals is expected to continue next year, when the new two-year session begins. Any bills not approved by the end of this week would have to be reintroduced for the new term.

House Speaker-elect Tom Leonard, a Dewitt Republican who was born in Flint and later worked there, said he is committed to “doing everything we can to make this situation right,” but intends to gauge caucus interest before committing to specific policies.

“This caucus will be ready to solve this problem, but we’re going to do so in a smart way,” he said. “We’re not just going to throw money at a problem, and we’re also not going to pass what I believe would be bad policy simply for the sake of saying we’re doing something.”

Flint began using river water as its primary drinking source in April 2014, but experts have said state water regulators did not require the city to use proper corrosion control chemicals. The harsh river water ended up leaching lead from aging pipes. The switch also coincided with outbreaks of deadly Legionnaires’ disease.

Flint returned to Detroit’s Lake Huron water supply in late 2015. Recent testing suggests lead levels have dropped, but residents in the city of roughly 100,000 residents continue to rely on bottled and filtered water for their daily needs.