House votes to require EPA lead warnings after Flint crisis

House votes to require EPA lead warnings after Flint crisis
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The House voted near unanimously Wednesday to improve the Environmental Protection Agency's notifications about drinking water contamination like the crisis plaguing Flint, Mich.

The bill, called the Safe Drinking Water Act Improved Compliance Awareness Act and sponsored by Michigan Reps. Dan Kildee (D) and Fred Upton (R), passed 416-2.

It is the House’s first response to Flint’s ongoing crisis, where the city's drinking water was improperly treated and became contaminated by lead from old pipes.

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Under the bill, drinking water utilities would have to notify their customers if lead levels exceed the federal safety limits. The EPA would be required to notify the public about extremely high lead levels if local or state authorities take no action.

The EPA and state officials knew about the lead problem in Flint early last year, but did not tell the public, instead deferring to the state. The public did not find out about the lead contamination until October.

The legislation doesn’t answer bigger questions about Flint, and doesn’t give the city of 100,000 the hundreds of millions of dollars it needs to repair or replace old lead pipes, as Senate Democrats have demanded.

Kildee, who grew up and lives in Flint, said improving communication between agencies when lead becomes present in drinking water could prevent similar situations in the future.

“The thing that makes me most upset — sad, yes, but also angry — is that this crisis situation, which will last for decades in its impact, was completely avoidable.”

“This bill unfortunately is too late to help them, but it can help the next Flint, perhaps," he added.

Upton, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, said communication about the lead contamination was one of the main problems contributing to Flint’s crisis.

“We know that part of the answer, certainly not the whole story, is that there was a terrible breakdown in communication at every level of government,” he said.

In addition to requiring drinking water utilities and the EPA to act, the bill also includes a number of other notification provisions, and would mandate better communications between the EPA and other stakeholders, including state and local governments.

Susan Hedman, who was the EPA regional administrator for the Great Lakes area until recently, told the Detroit News that she did not know in early 2015 whether she could take action against Michigan or go public with the lead findings in Flint, so she sought a legal opinion that took months.

She resigned from her position last month due to her role in the ongoing crisis.

As part of its response to the contamination, the EPA has told its staff to escalate their public health concerns if state regulators do not take proper action.

The notification provisions are also in a legislative package sponsored by Michigan Sens. Gary Peters (D) and Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowThe Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Democrats to Trump: Ask Forest Service before shrinking monuments MORE (D). They’re part of a $600 million package for Flint that is now caught up in negotiations between the parties in the Senate.

— Cristina Marcos contributed to this story.