Michigan Dems fear Trump’s EPA grant freeze may hurt Flint

Melissa Nann Burke, and Jim Lynch

Members of Michigan’s congressional delegation were seeking answers from the White House after the Trump administration ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to halt awarding new contracts or grants, raising concerns the move could endanger federal aid to Flint.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters and Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents the Flint area, worried that the directive could jeopardize “much-needed” federal funding from quickly reaching Flint families still recovering from the lead contamination of their drinking water.

“We write to request clarity on a reported freeze imposed on all new Environmental Protection Agency grants and contracts, and in particular, to inquire as to whether this decision applies to the funding Congress approved with strong bipartisan support to help address the City of Flint’s drinking water crisis,” the lawmakers wrote, noting that Trump campaigned in Flint with promises to help the city.

“We would strongly oppose any actions by your administration that result in delaying resources to Flint.”

The Trump administration has ordered a “temporary suspension” of all new business activities at the department, including issuing task orders or work assignments to EPA contractors. The orders are expected to have a significant and immediate impact on EPA activities nationwide.

“Flint families have waited long enough for help and President Trump’s EPA directives should not jeopardize or delay real aid from reaching Flint or any other community in need,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said in a statement along with Kildee and two other Democratic lawmakers.

The Republican administration also instituted a media blackout at the EPA. Emails sent to EPA staff since Trump’s inauguration on Friday and reviewed by the Associated Press detailed the specific prohibitions banning press releases, blog updates or posts to the agency’s social media accounts.

The White House couldn’t immediately confirm the orders. The EPA did not respond to phone calls and emails Monday or Tuesday requesting comment.

“We’re looking into it,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at Tuesday’s media briefing.

In a Sept. 14 campaign stop in Flint, which included a tour of the city’s dormant water plant, Trump promised that the city’s water would be fixed, but did not outline a particular policy to do so.

“I can only say in the strongest of terms that we can fix this problem, it’s going to take time, it’s amazing the damage that’s been done,” he said at the Bethel United Methodist Church in Flint. “But we’ll get it fixed and … it will be fixed quickly and effectively and Flint will come back. Most importantly, we’ll bring jobs back to Flint.”

During the rest of the campaign, Trump added a line to his standard campaign stump speech that cars used to be built in Flint and the water in Mexico couldn’t be consumed — and now the opposite is true. During a Nov. 1 speech in Warren, he blamed the city’s lead-contaminated water crisis on unnamed “incompetent politicians.”

The EPA directive is under review at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, “particularly how it might affect Drinking Water Revolving Funds for Flint and other Michigan cities,” said Anna Heaton, spokeswoman for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

In December, Congress overwhelmingly approved a package including $100 million in emergency aid for Flint to help replace its lead service lines and make other water infrastructure improvements.

In their letter to Trump, the Michigan delegation asked whether the spending freeze at EPA would prevent “congressionally directed” funding from helping Flint, and whether the freeze applied to resources used by the EPA to enforce that agency’s administrative order issued a year ago to ensure the city’s drinking water meets minimum federal standards.

The Michigan DEQ hadn’t received any notice from the EPA, agency spokesman Michael Shore said Tuesday.

“We’re still awaiting further information to know what the impacts will be” to potential Flint funding, Shore said.

“A little more than a quarter of DEQ’s budget comes from several federal funding sources, including the EPA,” he said. “And we have already received our appropriation from EPA for the 2017 fiscal year.”

State Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, said he was unsure how Trump’s new marching orders for the EPA could affect his city, but hopes the impact would be minimal.

“We’re all speculating how much damage the Trump administration would do to urban communities moving forward, but I hope he would not have the power to go back retroactively and rescind things and cause more hardship,” Neeley said.

“I pray that this does not impact the residents who have already been suffering for a lengthy amount of time.”

Melissa Mays, a Flint activist who has called attention to the city’s water contamination issues, called the situation “horrifying.”

“When he came to Flint, (Trump) promised to fix Flint,” she said. “Freezing funding is not the way to fix Flint.”

Mays said she felt like she was watching history repeat itself in the way Trump’s administration is relying on people who are not environmental experts to make environmental calls.

“That’s the scariest part — it’s exactly what happened in Flint with the emergency managers,” she said.


Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.