EPA: No ‘freeze’ on Flint funding under Trump

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – President Donald Trump’s administration conducted a brief review of Environmental Protection Agency grants but never ordered a “freeze” on new awards, a spokesman said Thursday, downplaying fears that pledged federal aid for the Flint water crisis could be jeopardized.

New grant awards “were never stopped, actually,” said Doug Ericksen of the EPA transition team. “Nothing was canceled, nothing was delayed.”

Reports earlier this week of a temporary halt for new grants and contracts were largely based on emails the administration had sent to agency staff. But Ericksen suggested the purported freeze was “highly exaggerated” by the media and “overzealous career employees” at the EPA.

Nonetheless, uncertainty prompted a Tuesday review by Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration and a letter from congressional Democrats asking Trump whether new EPA directives would affect at least $100 million in approved federal funding expected to help Flint replace lead service lines and make other infrastructure improvements.

The EPA Office of Public Affairs sent an interagency notice to Michigan and other states later Tuesday indicating it would continue to award environmental program grants and revolving loan grants, Snyder’s office said Thursday.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether thanked EPA Acting Administrator Catherine McCabe in a Wednesday letter but told her “any additional clarification you can provide regarding future federal funding to the states would be greatly appreciated.”

Grether noted that the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, pushed by members of Michigan’s congressional delegation and signed in December by then-President Barack Obama, will provide “much needed support” to Flint through the Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund program.

“The MDEQ looks forward to the EPA’s assistance with assuring the federal funds are provided to the city of Flint in a timely manner to further improve water quality for their citizens,” she wrote.

As of midday Thursday, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing, a Democrat who helped write Tuesday’s letter to Trump, was “still awaiting a clear response from the Trump administration and the EPA that confirms the $100 million in funding for Flint is not impacted or delayed by the spending freeze,” spokesman Matt Williams said.

“Until that occurs, this much-needed federal funding remains in jeopardy.”

Michigan has not yet formally applied for the federal grant funding that Congress made available for Flint and other communities, but the city completed a key step this week by submitting its recommended “intended use plan” to the Department of Environmental Quality.

The state department expects to submit the official request by the end of February, spokesman Michael Shore said Thursday.

The city’s $120 million plan, which incorporates $20 million in state funding already approved by the Legislature, calls for a series of Flint water system improvements between April 1 and July 2019.

The city wants to spend $40 million to replace between 9,230 and 12,000 lead service lines and galvanized pipes over the next two years, according to an outline submitted by Mayor Karen Weaver. An estimated 29,100 lead service lines exist in Flint. As of Jan. 13, the city had replaced 780.

Flint also intends to spend $58.5 million on water treatment plant improvements, $10 million to replace “critical water transmission lines,” $10 million to replace “aging water meters” at all residential, commercial and industrial buildings, and $1.5 million for an engineering study on corrosion control chemicals.

Stabenow, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township and Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township had also questioned whether the spending freeze could affect resources the EPA needs to oversee and enforce an ongoing Emergency Administrative Order first issued in January 2016.

In their letter, they asked the president what the EPA freeze meant for personnel or contractors who are providing technical assistance in Flint and helping with water testing.

In a Sept. 14 campaign stop in Flint, which included a tour of the city’s dormant water plant, Trump promised the crisis would “be fixed quickly and effectively and Flint will come back,” but he did not detail any specific plans.

"Sen. Peters has yet to receive a formal response from the EPA clarifying the impact of the grant freeze on the City of Flint," Peters spokesman Zade Alsawah said. "Sen. Peters wants swift reassurance that the federal funding passed by Congress last year to help Flint repair its broken infrastructure will go toward its intended use without delay.”

Ericksen told USA Today on Thursday that an additional $100 million in grants and contracts remain under review.