House Boosts EPA Authority to Publicize Water Violations

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By Amena H. Saiyid

Feb. 10 — On a near unanimous vote, the House passed legislation Feb. 10 that would strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to notify the public when lead levels in drinking water violate federal standards.

Sponsored by Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), the Safe Drinking Water Act Improved Compliance Awareness Act (H.R. 4470) needed a two-thirds majority vote to pass under suspended rules. The bill secured a vote of 416-2, with only Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) voting against it.

As passed, H.R. 4470 also would:

  •  give an EPA employee, who learns that lead levels in tap water are exceeded, authority to bypass the state and notify the water utility of the violation. If the utility and the state still fail to act, then the EPA would step in;
  •  require the EPA to develop a strategic plan to handle flow of information among those affected, the state and the federal agency; and,
  •  require public notification when water being transported in a lead pipe is sufficiently corrosive that it could leach lead into public drinking water.
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    The measure now heads to the Senate, where a bill with similar public notification provisions awaits consideration. That measure was introduced by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) on Jan. 28 and was incorporated into an amendment to the Energy Policy Modernization Act (S. 2012).

    Includes Emergency Funds for Flint

    The amendment includes emergency funds for Flint, Mich., which is reeling from a water contamination crisis, and the public notification measure. Republicans and Democrats are still trying to iron out how to pay for the effort.

    The bipartisan bill was introduced Feb. 4 by both lawmakers because Michigan, primarily, the city of Flint and then the EPA were slow to react and respond to citizen complaints about the city's tap water.

    Contamination of Flint's tap water began after the state switched the city's water supply in April 2014 to the Flint River without adding controls to prevent corrosion of aged lead service lines.

    The measure was co-sponsored by 57 Republicans and 14 Democrats, including all members of the Michigan delegation.

    House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) tweeted that H.R. 4470 was an “important step in response to #Flint,” because it “holds #EPA accountable for keeping public notified in a crisis.”

    No Lawmaker Speaks Against Measure

    During the House debate on H.R. 4470, no member spoke against the bill. Republicans for the most part blamed the EPA for ignoring reports of elevated lead levels found in Flint's water, while Democrats mostly held Michigan and Gov. Rick Snyder (R) responsible.

    All agree, however, on the need to help Flint residents and to avoid a repeat occurrence.

    Upton, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee that has oversight over federal drinking water programs, expressed sadness that Congress has to consider this bill.

    “I wish I wasn't here. I wish this bill wasn't necessary, but it is. Our hearts go out to the folks in Flint,” Upton said, noting the “terrible breakdown in communication in every level of government.”

    Upton was followed by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, who urged support for the bill. In his floor remarks, Tonko emphasized that contamination of Flint's drinking water supplies underscores a larger infrastructure problem and the role of Congress.

    Congress's Failure Cited

    “This Congress, as well as many previous Congresses, has failed to maintain federal support for the maintenance and improvement of our water infrastructure,” Tonko said. “We have been underfunding these systems for decades. The poor condition of the water treatment and distribution system in Flint set the stage for this tragedy.”

    Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) noted that what happened in Flint wasn't a natural disaster but rather a man-made disaster. “Children shouldn't have to worry about safe and clean water. This should not have happened. This bill will ensure that proper coordination occurs going forward.”

    Kildee, the bill's author whose district includes Flint, said what happened there was “completely avoidable.” This legislation is one step, but not the total solution, Kildee said, adding that H.R. 4470 would strengthen the hands of those who work at the EPA, requiring them to provide notice to the public and water systems when the state fails to act.

    “It's too late to help the people of Flint, but it can help avoid the next Flint perhaps,” he said.

    Committee to Hold Hearing on Flint

    The Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to hold a hearing in March at an unspecified date and time to examine the causes that led to elevated lead levels in Flint's tap water. Upton said the committee would examine what flexibility is available to a state under the Safe Drinking Water Act to use federal drinking water infrastructure funds to address public health emergencies, such as the one experienced in Flint.

    “We are beginning to explore things we might be able to do through the SDWA through an examination of existing law and whether tweaks to existing law are needed. We also need to learn more about Flint and priorities,” Dan Schneider, spokesman for House Energy and Commerce Committee, told Bloomberg BNA.

    To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bna.com

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

    For More Information

    The Safe Drinking Water Act Improved Compliance Awareness Act (H.R. 4470) is available at http://src.bna.com/cAv.