Michigan House Democrats Brenda Lawrence and Dan Kildee will lead a group from Congress– including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi – on a visit to Flint next month to learn about how federal resources could be devoted to addressing the water crisis there, Lawrence told Roll Call on Friday.
The March 4 trip will come amid a series of high-profile political events in the city, which has become a symbol of failing urban infrastructure and mismanagement after it was revealed that as many as 9,000 children had been poisoned for months by undisclosed lead in its drinking water. A Democratic presidential debate is scheduled there between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders on March 6, two days before the Michigan and Mississippi primaries. Clinton interrupted campaigning in New Hampshire to visit the city Sunday.
"We have to see what’s going on on the ground, what will happen with federal resources we are sending there," Lawrence said. She said the group will hold a community "speak-out," where residents will be encouraged to share their needs. The group will include members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, she said.
Almost a month after President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint, Congress remains split over who should bear the brunt of the responsibility and what role the federal government should play in the recovery. Republicans have focused on the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for enforcing federal safe drinking water standards. Democrats have pointed to Rick Snyder, the governor, who has apologized to Flint residents and promised to "fix" the problem.
Also on Friday, Snyder announced in a tweet that, after eluding months of calls to testify before Congress, he had changed course Friday and requested an invitation. The Republican-controlled Committee on Oversight and Government Reform promptly responded, issuing an announcement that Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy would testify at a new hearing on a date that has not been determined.
Other expected witnesses included were regional EPA administrator Susan Hedman and former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley. Hedman and Earley declined invitations to testify at the first hearing and were later issued subpoenas by the committee to provide private depositions. Those depositions are scheduled for Feb. 25 and 29, a committee spokesman said.
Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager when it switched its drinking water supply in 2014. The EPA identified problems with lead contamination nearly a year ago, but spend months arguing with state officials before informing the public.
The city, meanwhile, is still struggling to address basic needs, including testing children for lead poisoning and ensuring that drinking water is safe. At the same time, it must also make a plan for the long-term repercussions of the water contamination, including providing health care for the children exposed to the contaminated water and helping local businesses survive the crisis and eventually rebuilding a city that has been in turmoil for decades.
The House this week approved a bipartisan bill, sponsored by Kildee and Michigan Republican Fred Upton, that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to inform residents within 24 hours when tests show that drinking water is contaminated with lead.
But the Senate has not been able to agree on an aid package that would help Flint replace corroded pipes and support children and families exposed to lead. Stalled negotiations on that package led the Senate to shelve a bipartisan energy bill for at least two weeks.
Lawrence said that officials from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control briefed congressional Democrats about such concerns Friday morning.
"This has been a frustrating experience because it’s a man-made disaster." Lawrence said. "The state has, must be held accountable for fixing this — I have not heard anyone say that we should not be providing federal sources, but where does that line go where the state steps up in responsibility for this?"
Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services briefed congressional Democrats about such concerns Friday, according to a memo from the meeting. They confirmed the federal government “anticipates being able to approve,” an expansion of Medicaid coverage to pregnant women and children in Flint, among other “additional requests,” according to the memo. The Medicaid expansion would provide coverage for lead-blood level monitoring, behavioral health services and nutritional support, among other services.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy are scheduled to travel to Flint next week, the memo said.
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