Policy

Plenty of Facts But Little Action on Flint

Congressional probe has yet to produce conclusions or aid for water crisis

Federal aid has helped provided bottle water but not fixes to the water pipes in Flint. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When Congress returns from its recess April 4, two months, three oversight hearings and four congressional delegation visits to Flint, Mich. will have passed since House Republicans went into “fact-finding mode” on the city's drinking water crisis.  

So far, no solution and no agreement on the proper level of federal intervention have materialized. But a damning report released Wednesday in Michigan finds plenty of blame at all levels of government, with an added emphasis on "incompetence" at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and "disclosure failures" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  

“The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice,” according to the report released by the Flint Water Advisory Task Force appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.  

Among the task force's conclusions:

  • MDEQ bears primary responsibility for the water contamination in Flint
  • EPA failed to properly exercise its authority prior to January 2016. EPA’s conduct casts doubt on its willingness to aggressively pursue enforcement (in the absence of widespread public outrage).
  • Ultimate accountability for Michigan executive branch decisions rests with the Governor.

The task force’s findings echo largely the blame game played during a March 17 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, where Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy each pointed the finger at the other's bureaucracy for failing the people of Flint, where a change in the water supply left residents exposed to lead and dangerous bacteria.  

How Flint Became the New 9th Ward

Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz , R-Utah, led the Republican effort to chastise the Obama administration's McCarthy for the EPA's failure to quickly intervene in the drinking water problem. He called on McCarthy to resign, while the committee’s top Democrat, Elijah E. Cummings , D-Md., led calls from his party for Republican Snyder’s resignation.  

Beyond assigning blame, House Republicans remain skeptical about the need for the federal government to provide aid to help the city fix its corroded water pipes and address the continuing health needs of residents who have been drinking and bathing in the contaminated water for months.  

Chaffetz, who visited Flint on March 12, has promised accountability for the government failure in the city, but would not commit to sending federal dollars.  

“The Governor and the state of Michigan has a game plan,” Chaffetz told reporters following the March 17 Flint hearing. “I want to see how that will be funded. This was created in Michigan, and I don’t know if the people of Iowa or Utah should have to pay for it.”  

Snyder released a plan on Monday calling for expanded childhood health and education programs, city-wide water infrastructure replacement, and new job and economic development efforts.  

The state has already spent $67 million in emergency appropriations to address the crisis, and Snyder proposed in his fiscal 2017 budget request an additional $195 million for the water infrastructure revamp.  

On Wednesday, the federal government provided support in the form of a $15 million Department of Labor grant to Michigan “to assist with humanitarian and recovery efforts” by providing temporary work and career and training services.  

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has expanded Medicaid coverage and Head Start programs for children and families exposed to lead.  

But Congress has yet to provide any aid.  

The Senate came close to reaching a bipartisan deal earlier this month that would take funds from a stalled advanced automobile loan program and send $220 million to Flint through a combination of grants and loan programs. Sen. Mike Lee , R-Utah, maintains a hold on that deal based on concerns that it would contribute to the national deficit.  

Rep. Dan Kildee , D-Mich., who represents Flint, took to the House floor Wednesday to ask the chamber not to recess until they address the water crisis.  

“They deserve help from the state and they deserve help from their federal government,” Kildee said. “They are citizens of Michigan, but they are also citizens of the United States who are facing a disaster, who are facing a crisis, and have every right to expect that their government will step in to help them, especially when it is clear that it was the government that did this in the first place, that made the decisions that led to this crisis.”  

Kildee introduced legislation (HR 4479 ) in February that would provide $720 million for Flint through federal funding and a requirement for a state match that would improve the water system, provide educational and nutritional intervention services and establish a “Center for Excellence” to monitor community health.  

The House has yet to act on that measure but did give overwhelming approval to another bill (HR 4470 ) requiring the EPA to notify the public within two weeks of discovering elevated lead levels in a community’s drinking water.  

When it comes to spending federal money on the problem, Republicans have balked.  

“We can be part of the solution, but we can’t be the total solution,” said Rep. John Shimkus , R-Ill. “It’s going to cost money, so where does the money come from? If they thought there was going to be a $600 million federal funding stream to replace all the pipes in Flint, that is not going to happen.”  

Shimkus said he would not oppose the use of existing funding mechanisms, including grants and loans to assist with infrastructure projects.  

But the problem for many Republicans is the precedent federal aid to Flint would set, especially with so many other communities across the nation in similar predicaments. Elevated lead levels have been reported in drinking water in Baltimore, Newark, N.J., and cities in Ohio and Mississippi.  

“Long term, it’s going to be a significant investment, and we are going to have to figure out how to deal with this,” said Rep. Ken Calvert , R-Calif., who chairs the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. “It’s not just Flint. There are a number of communities across the country.”  

Contact Dillon at jeremydillon@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @jeremydilloncq