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‘Poison pill’ threatens Flint aid in Congress

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The final version of a water resources bill released by congressional lawmakers Monday would authorize $170 million in Flint-inspired aid, but the addition of an unrelated drought provision threatens to derail its passage.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the insertion of language related to the California drought by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy would result in the loss of thousands of fishery jobs, roll back Endangered Species Act protections and supplant congressional authority to approve new dams around the country.

“I will use every tool at my disposal to stop this last-minute poison-pill rider,” Boxer said.

The measure would divert water to drought-effected parts of central and southern California for farming and other purposes. McCarthy noted the provision had the support of California’s other senator.

“The agreement could not have been finalized without Senator Dianne Feinstein, and I am proud to have worked with her on this legislation,” McCarthy said in a statement.

“Our work on California water is by no means complete, but this deal signals that there is a path to getting more done to restore California’s greatness.”

Michigan Democrats worried Monday the issue could doom the chances of Congress passing the water resources legislation after many months of negotiations to secure federal aid for Flint. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, called the drought provision “divisive.”

“There is no reason to jeopardize passing urgently needed assistance to address lead poisoning issues in Flint and other communities,” Stabenow said. “We will continue working to reach a final agreement and will hold Republican leaders accountable to their promise to pass assistance by the end of the year.”

In the Senate, Republican leaders had said they would pursue a $220 million package of Flint-related aid when the water resources legislation went to conference to work out the differences between House and Senate versions.

While the water resources legislation released Monday includes authorization for the Flint provisions, the actual funding is not included.

Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said he expects funding will be incorporated into a must-pass budget resolution before year’s end. That resolution language has not yet been released.

“I remain focused on holding Republicans to their commitment to complete a Flint aid package before Congress adjourns — even if that means using the end-of-year spending bill as a vehicle,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, on Monday.

The $170 million package in the Water Infrastructure Improvements Act for the Nation bill is less overall than Michigan members had hoped for, but it retains $100 million for subsidized loans for water infrastructure improvements through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for 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. Flint meets that definition under the law.

Another $20 million in the package would be applied toward financing costs for up to $200 million in secured loans for water infrastructure across the country through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Fund at the Environmental Protection Agency.

This $20 million is a reduction from the $70 million for innovation act loans that was approved by the Senate in September.

Another $50 million would be directed toward national health programs for efforts such as a health registry, and more funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Fund.

An advisory committee would be created to review federal efforts related to lead poisoning research and services, and to make recommendations to Congress and the administration on how to improve health, education and nutrition responses.

The final language would also give Michigan and other states the flexibility to use funding through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to forgive past water infrastructure loans owed to a state. Flint owes nearly $21 million in such loans.

The legislation would also strengthen requirements for the EPA to alert the public of high levels of lead in drinking water when a state agency fails to do so.

“Families in my hometown have waited far too long for Congress to act and Flint aid should not be put in jeopardy,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, in a statement.

“Democrats and Republicans have already made a commitment to help the people of Flint by passing legislation in both the House and Senate. Lawmakers now must finish those promises and work to deliver real aid to families before the end of the year.”

Under the language approved by the Senate in September, funding for the Flint-related provisions would come from rescinding the credit subsidy for the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program for automakers for loans issued after Oct. 1, 2020.

That program, created in 2007, helps auto and parts manufacturers retool plants to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.

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Staff writer Keith Laing contributed.