Reforms languish in wake of Flint water crisis

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Nearly three years after Flint’s disastrous switch to river water, the Michigan Legislature has approved only a single policy reform inspired by the city’s lead contamination crisis despite calls to prevent similar catastrophes.

Flint city employees toast with treated water from the Flint River to celebrate the switch from Detroit water on April 25, 2014. Three years and a massive crisis later, state policies have not changed much.

The glacial pace has frustrated Flint lawmakers who have pushed for reforms and spurred Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to pursue changes through administrative rules rather than legislation, including his slow-moving plan to limit the amount of lead allowed in public drinking water supplies.

The Republican-led Legislature has approved almost $250 million in Flint-related aid since late 2015. But policy recommendations issued last year by a bipartisan panel have languished as the House and Senate have focused on other issues, including potential tax cuts.

“This never should have happened — people in my community are still dealing with it — but we’re not protecting anybody else,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, criticizing his Republican colleagues who control both chambers. “…If it happens again, shame on them.”

In October, the bipartisan Joint Committee on the Flint Water Public Health Emergency released 30 policy proposals, including reforms to the state’s emergency manager law, tougher criminal penalties for misconduct by public officials and new water testing requirements for homes and schools.

Six months later, one bill recommended by the committee has been signed into law — a measure requiring water suppliers to notify the public within three days if testing shows lead levels exceeding allowable limits. Snyder signed the bill with great fanfare in January, calling it an “important step in our ongoing efforts to strengthen Michigan’s water quality and infrastructure.”

More than a dozen other bills, including bipartisan measures, died in committee last year. A handful advanced out of the Senate but did not get a vote in House, including legislation making Flint eligible to become a “promise zone” for college tuition assistance and allowing the city to form a recovery and development authority.

State Sen. Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican who chaired the committee, argues the state has made significant progress in Flint despite the lack of legislative action.

“While we haven’t seen it directly in the Legislature or some of the other bills, we continue to have a very good conversation with Sen. Ananich, and we continue to see the investment in Flint with the dollars we’ve already appropriated,” Stamas said.

The Flint crisis has inspired calls to change the state’s emergency manager law, which grants a single governor-appointed individual unique powers to take over a city and address fiscal distress.

Flint was governed by emergency managers before and during the Flint crisis. Attorney General Bill Schuette has charged two of them — Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose — as part of an ongoing criminal probe.

Under their leadership, the city began drawing water from the Flint River on April 25, 2014, while awaiting construction of a new regional pipeline to Lake Huron. Residents quickly complained about the smell, color and taste of the water. It was not properly treated with corrosion control chemicals and eventually damaged aging pipes, leaching lead into the municipal supply.

In congressional testimony last spring, Snyder conceded “it would be a fair conclusion” to say Michigan’s emergency manager law failed in Flint related to the water crisis. But he has cautioned against eliminating the law, arguing it succeeded in Detroit and other parts of the state.

In Flint, unelected managers made “key decisions that contributed to the crisis,” according to a task force appointed by Snyder, which said the appointments removed “the checks and balances and public accountability that come with public decision-making.”

EM reform stalled

Gov. Rick Snyder has called for legislative action on various fronts, including new rules to strengthen water test sampling methods.

In a report released more than a year ago, the task force called for a review of the emergency manager law, urged policy makers to consider alternatives and stressed the need to ensure proper support and expertise to help appointees run local governments or school districts.

The special legislative committee echoed those calls in October, suggesting the state replace the single emergency manager with a three-person financial management team comprised of a financial expert, local government operations expert and local ombudsman.

Beyond informal discussions last year, there have been no substantive talks about reforming the law, which Snyder signed in late 2012 after Michigan voters overturned an earlier version.

“Based on the fact the Legislature’s own special committee recommended changes, I think the Legislature is going to be hard up to explain why they haven’t addressed it,” said Ken Sikkema, a Republican and former state Senate majority leader who co-chaired the governor’s task force. “It’s not that complicated.”

Stamas said he’s had “real good conversations” with Ananich about the law but said it’s a big issue that could affect many parts of the state, including communities that remain fiscally solvent but face large unfunded liabilities that could cripple them in the future.

“It affects so many other things beyond just the lead,” he said.

Michigan’s economic rebound has helped reduced the state’s reliance on emergency managers — only the Highland Park School District remains under total state control. But history suggests recessions could again hit cities hard in the future.

“There needs to be something in place if cities or schools or another form of government gets into a problem, but this emergency manager law has clearly been shown to be a failure,” Ananich said.

Slow going on lead rules

A year ago, Snyder first called for strengthening the “dumb and dangerous” federal Lead and Copper Rule to limit the amount of lead allowed in local water supplies, which experts say is dangerous at any level.

“We aren’t going to wait for the federal government to fix it anymore,” he said at the time, highlighting reforms recommended by the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee.

Seeing little appetite for the plan in the Legislature, Snyder last month proposed an administrative rule that would lower the 15 parts per billion federal standard to 10 ppb by 2020. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has not finished drafting rule language, and review process could take months to years.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and House Speaker Tom Leonard have both questioned the governor’s plan, saying it could cost local communities significant money for compliance. While implementation does not require legislative approval, legislators on the Joint Committee for Administrative Rules could object and pursue an alternative.

Snyder called the administrative rule process just one of the tools he could use to pursue policy changes. The Legislature has “a full agenda of many things they’re looking at, and I think we’re working hard to try to work together on this issue,” he said.

More than three dozen water systems serving nearly 380,000 Michigan residents would fail to meet the governor’s new standard if it were in place today, including Monroe, Bay City, Benton Harbor and Holland Township.

Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, said she does not expect much legislative action in response to Flint this year, citing a “real reticence” to address some of the bigger issues that would affect more than just Flint.

Snyder took much of the blame for the crisis after his administration’s slow response to citizen complaints, which Demas said has given legislators less motivation to follow his lead in the final two years of his tenure.

“The governor’s numbers have taken a beating,” she said, citing public opinion polling. “I think that’s given some Republicans pause. You see a political figure who is struggling, and regardless of how you feel he handled an issue like the Flint water crisis, your No. 1 priority is self-preservation.”

Snyder has called for legislative action on various fronts, including new rules to strengthen water test sampling methods and required testing at state licensed facilities including schools, day care and health facilities.

Rep. Sheldon Neeley, a Flint Democrat who sponsored the notification law Snyder signed, has reintroduced legislation that would require water quality testing at schools and day care facilities, but it has not yet been taken up by a House committee.

“We know children zero to five are the most vulnerable when there is lead in the water, and we know people with weakened immune systems are vulnerable,” he said. “So children and seniors, we need to start making sure they are taken care of.”

Neeley said “everyone should have a level of frustration” with the pace of reforms but is encouraged by continued dialogue in Lansing and interest from Leonard. He would like to see lawmakers take up a large reform package rather than aprove one bill a time.

“If we’re having legislative action every month on Flint, instead of actually executing on a total plan and getting it done at one time, (Republicans) will start experiencing Flint fatigue,” he said.