Lawmakers look to prevent future Flints

Lawmakers look to prevent future Flints
© Getty Images

House lawmakers used a Wednesday hearing on the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis to advocate for policies that they believe would prevent future large-scale water contamination.

Republicans and Democrats on a pair of subpanels in the House Energy and Commerce Committee largely stuck to their stated goal of not pointing fingers or trying to assign blame for Flint’s crisis, in which the city’s water was contaminated with lead for months due mostly to actions by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and his administration.

ADVERTISEMENT

Instead, they pushed for increased water infrastructure funding, better regulation of drinking water systems, more public health efforts and other ways to prevent or mitigate future problems.

“Flint reminds us that if we fail to properly invest in health and safety, the consequences can be devastating,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), ranking member of the full committee.

“We must improve lead testing, monitoring and public notice to act on risks quickly,” agreed Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.). “We have to focus on protecting vulnerable populations. We need to address lead exposure in schools and assist low-income homeowners with lead line replacement. And we need a sustained and robust commitment to upgrade our water systems and remove those lead components.”

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) joined in, saying he was worried about whether local, state and federal governments have enough money to fix water systems nationwide.

“I’m very concerned about the people of Flint, and we need to find a solution for them,” he said. “But I’m also concerned about the lead levels across the country.”

The cordial session followed a trio of heated hearings in February and March in the House Oversight Committee, where finger-pointing was a top priority. Republicans generally used those sessions to blame the crisis on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while Democrats sought to hold Snyder accountable.

But Wednesday’s event saw far more agreement among members, particularly on the need for the EPA to revise its lead and copper rule, which dictates not only maximum concentrations of the metals in water, but how levels are tested, how water is treated and other factors.

“The Safe Drinking Water Act is supposed to ensure safe and reliable drinking water for customers of public drinking water systems across the United States,” said Rep. Gene GreenRaymond (Gene) Eugene GreenTexas New Members 2019 Two Democrats become first Texas Latinas to serve in Congress Latina Leaders to Watch 2018 MORE (D-Texas). “Clearly, it failed the citizens of Flint, and we in Congress should be asking why. It seems that the short answer is because the lead and copper rule, or LCR, is in serious need of revision.”

Green said there’s no punishment for water systems whose lead concentrations exceed the maximums under the rule.

“In other words, the current LCR fails to incentivize protection,” he said.

Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator for water at the EPA, said the agency has been working for years to update the rule, and Flint increased the urgency of that effort.

“We certainly have a sense of urgency about the revisions. We also want to make sure that we get them right,” he told lawmakers. “We’re working hard on that, and we’re going to get it done as quickly as we can.”

But Beauvais’s estimate that the rule would not even be proposed in 2017 angered many members.

“If there was one message you could send up the chain, it’s that we’d like to have something maybe earlier than 2017. That’s a long ways off,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the panel’s chairman. “I’d like to think that there can be an extra push to try to get that so that communities can figure out where they need to go.”

Beauvais repeatedly declined to discuss details of the rule, saying it’s still under development.

But an external advisory committee made a number of recommendations about it to the EPA last year, including to require proactive replacement of lead water pipes by utilities and to establish a lead concentration level that would trigger a public notification as soon as a test finds the level in a house’s tap water.