Flint Water Response Garners Local Leaders' Support

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By Rachel Leven

March 9 — Flint, Mich., is amassing support from city and local leaders nationwide for revamping its drinking water infrastructure following the crisis that potentially exposed more than 8,000 children to high lead concentrations.

Representatives with the National League of Cities said March 9 they are urging Congress to give direct aid to the Michigan city in addition to considering state or federal infrastructure programs. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is expected March 10 to release a letter to Washington, D.C. officials in support of the city's plan to address the lead contamination. The crisis is also prompting broader calls by local leaders for others to boost funding and act as partners in updating and maintaining local infrastructure.

This support comes as the Senate works to reach a compromise on a Flint aid package and linked Senate energy bill (S. 2012). Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has placed a hold on the bill because of concerns over how the accompanying $250 million Flint aid package would be paid for. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) also placed a hold on the measure over concerns about an unrelated energy drilling amendment in the Senate legislation (see related story).

The Flint crisis began when a state emergency manager decided to switch the city's water source and the necessary corrosion controls weren't added. That and a slow government response resulted in residents drinking lead-contaminated water without their knowledge. Lead exposure can result in health problems like child brain development issues.

Support for Flint

At a March 9 league meeting on Capitol Hill, city council members, municipal leaders and others expressed frustration on behalf of Flint for the lack of government action in that situation.

“EPA blew it on oversight. They put too much faith in our Department of Environmental Quality … but very clearly the powers that be in the state wanted this to work,” Dan Gilmartin, executive director and chief executive officer of the Michigan Municipal League, said referring to the switch of water sources. “The real awful part of this is that it's not your typical government screw up … This is something where we've got kids who will be living with these consequences for an entire lifetime.”

This frustration has translated into resolutions, meetings and letters on behalf of Flint, but Flint is the tip of the iceberg for the action desired. For example, the League through a resolution it passed March 7 urged Congress and the Obama administration to send aid to Flint.

The resolution also focused on infrastructure nation-wide, noting that Washington should also support “robust funding” for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Funds and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act.

Partnerships Desired

At the March 9 meeting, both funding and partnerships were sought.

State, local and federal governments work together on infrastructure; however, those relationships have shifted over the “last several decades” to be less collaborative, Gilmartin said. But collaboration among these entities makes for the best infrastructure work, he said.

“For small cities and large cities in America it may take a regional partnership to keep up with all of the requirements and the demands of these infrastructure systems,” said Clarence Anthony, National League of Cities CEO and executive director.

At least for water infrastructure, local leaders aren't on their own in wanting to update water infrastructure. The American Water Works Association's board voted unanimously March 7 to support National Drinking Water Advisory Council recommendations to completely remove lead service lines .

“Communities have taken positive steps for more than two decades to reduce lead exposure from water and other sources,” David LaFrance, CEO for the water association, said in a March 8 statement on the board's vote. “But there is clearly much more to be done.”

“The Flint crisis lays bare a simple fact: As long as there are lead pipes in the ground or lead plumbing in homes, some risk remains,” LaFrance said. “As a society, we should seize this moment of increased awareness about lead risks to develop solutions for getting the lead out.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com