Senate Democrats push to address Flint water crisis

This Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016 photo shows a sign on an archway at the edge of downtown Flint, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats said Wednesday they will push to address the water crisis in Flint, Michigan as part of a bipartisan energy bill being debated in the Senate.

Sen Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said Democratic Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan will seek to amend the energy bill to “protect children from water that is deadly or poisonous.” As many as 7,000 children have been “poisoned because of lack of proper government oversight” of Flint’s water supply, Durbin said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, called the situation in Flint “really, really frightening.” Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, tried to “save a few bucks with the water and, in the process, poisoned lots of people,” Reid said.

>>Inside woodtv.com: How you can help Flint residents

Flint’s water became contaminated when the financially struggling city switched from the Detroit municipal system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. State officials were in charge of the city at the time.

Regulators failed to ensure the new water was treated properly and lead from pipes leached into the water supply, contributing to a spike in child lead exposure. Some children’s blood has tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems.

Reid said the amendment would likely focus on other municipal water supplies beyond Flint.

“We have a lot of communities around this country who have lead pipes, and a very deteriorating water system. So … that’s something we want to focus on, for sure,” Reid told reporters Wednesday.

Peters and Stabenow declined to offer details of the amendment, but said an announcement was likely Thursday.

Earlier Wednesday, the pair, along with Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., proposed separate legislation to clarify the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to notify the public if a danger from lead is in their water system.

The bill 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.

The EPA’s Midwest regional director announced her resignation last week in connection with the water crisis, and EPA chief Gina McCarthy issued an emergency order directing state and city officials to take actions to protect public health. While much of the public blame has been directed at Snyder and other state officials, particularly the state Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA’s Region 5 office, which covers six Great Lakes states, has also been criticized for not acting more forcefully.

The EPA has acknowledged that state officials notified the EPA 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.

>>PDF: Timeline of events in Flint

MICHIGAN EMERGENCY MANAGER LAW

At the same time, Democrats in Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature have introduced legislation to repeal an emergency manager law they say contributed to Flint’s lead-tainted water crisis.

The law lets the state appoint a manager to control a local government or school district’s finances. Flint was under state financial management when it disconnected from Detroit’s water supply and began using the Flint River.

Rep. LaTanya Garrett says emergency managers are unaccountable to residents and notes the worsening finances of Detroit’s school district under state management.

Majority Republicans favor the law. House Republican spokesman Gideon D’Assandro acknowledges “mistakes were made in Flint” but says there are no cities under emergency management for the first time in 15 years. He says “that shows the early warning program and improved intervention measures we put in place worked.”

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Complete coverage of the Flint water crisis

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