House backs bill to require EPA notification in lead cases

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WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Flint residents Gladyes Williamson (C) holds a bottle full of contaminated water, and a clump of her hair, alongside Jessica Owens (R), holding a baby bottle full of contaminated water, during a news conference after attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan water crisis on Capitol Hill February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. Williamson, and Owens traveled to Washington by bus with other flint familes to attend the House hearing on the crisis, and demand that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder be brought before Congress to testify under oath.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Flint residents Gladyes Williamson,center, holds a bottle full of contaminated water, and a clump of her hair, alongside Jessica Owens, holding a baby bottle full of contaminated water, during a news conference after attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Flint, Michigan, water crisis on Capitol Hill Feb. 3. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday approved legislation to clarify the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to notify the public about danger from lead in their drinking water — the first action by Congress to respond to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

The bill, approved 416-2, would direct the EPA to notify residents and health departments if the amount of lead found in a public water system requires action, in the absence of notification by the state.

Flint stopped using treated water from Detroit and switched to the Flint River in 2014 to save money. Regulators failed to ensure the water was treated properly and lead from aging pipes leached into the water supply, contributing to a spike in child lead exposure.

The EPA did not notify the public for months after learning that state officials were not treating Flint’s water.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., said the notification bill would not have prevented the crisis in his hometown, but he called it a necessary first step to prevent a similar crisis in other cities.

Kildee urged lawmakers to consider separate legislation he has introduced that would spend $765 million to help solve the water crisis in Flint. The bill would help Flint fix and replace lead-contaminated pipes and provide health and educational support for children poisoned by lead-contaminated water. Federal spending would be matched dollar-for-dollar by the state of Michigan under Kildee’s bill and a similar, less costly measure being considered in the Senate.

Kildee and other House Democrats said White House budget director Shaun Donovan signaled support for the emergency request at a closed-door meeting Wednesday. Donovan “likes the direction” of the bill “but has some suggestions” on how it could be improved, Kildee said.

Money for Flint may be included in a $1.8 billion spending request Obama has made to combat the Zika virus, but no decisions have been made, Kildee and other lawmakers said.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said government at all levels let down the people of Flint.

“Government officials knew there was serious cause for concern and failed to inform the people,” Upton said.

State officials in Michigan did not tell the EPA’s Midwest regional everything they knew about Flint, and the regional office did not share everything it knew with EPA headquarters in Washington, Upton said. “That must be fixed and it must be fixed now,” he said.

The EPA has acknowledged that state officials notified the agency last April that Flint was not treating the river water with additives to prevent corrosion from pipes.

Susan Hedman, the EPA’s former regional chief, voiced concern to state and city officials over the next few months. But it wasn’t until Oct. 16 that EPA established a task force to provide technical help — the day Flint switched back to the Detroit water system.

Hedman resigned Feb. 1. The state’s top environmental regulator and other high-ranking officials also have resigned in response to the crisis.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., called the Flint crisis an example of environmental injustice. Flint is majority African-American and more than 40 percent of its residents live in poverty.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said she was “mad as hell” about the events in Flint and linked it to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Waters said at an informal hearing led by Democratic lawmakers that she was tired of people being “nice” in seeking help for Flint. Democrats said the session was needed after Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and other officials were not invited to a GOP-led oversight hearing last week.

Waters said she and other lawmakers plan to visit Flint next month “and I don’t intend to be nice.”

Weaver said the planned visit and the hearing would help “keep Flint in the spotlight” and maintain pressure on state and federal officials to do more.

“This is an issue that can’t go unaddressed,” she said. “If we don’t use this as a lesson for the entire country then we have failed in Flint.”

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