Flint Crisis Funding Lingers as Senate Opponents Take Vacay

Senate Chambers Minneapolis Minnesota State Capitol Capital Building.
Senate Chambers Minneapolis Minnesota State Capitol Capital Building.

When engineers and local officials gathered at a modest home in Flint, Michigan, they were eager to start on the long-awaited project of replacing pipes in the distressed community. Flint's residents have spent nearly two years dealing with a crisis of unmatched proportion. An emergency financial manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder forced the city to change its drinking water source from Detroit to the contaminated Flint River. For more than a year, and despite widespread outcry, damaged pipes carried lead into the homes and bodies of children and adults throughout the city.

After months of political wrangling, the city and the state finally chose the first home to receive new pipes. The home had tested for 297 parts per billion of lead in the water. (For reference, EPA regulations define 15 parts per billion as "actionable.") Officials prepped the homeowner for a week for the media blitz planned for a Friday morning in early March. On Thursday, they dug out the supply pipe leading from the water main to the house. To the frustration of everyone involved, the pipe they uncovered was copper, like the other pipes in the home. It could not have been the source of the lead.

The engineer in charge of the effort reluctantly left with the rest of the group for another home down the street, knowing that for all their efforts, they had not fixed the problem. What seemed a challenge at first is now a frustrating puzzle, with the safety of thousands of Flint residents hanging in the balance until it is solved.

Tracing the lines of pipe buried under Flint is only one part of the solution. The other is tracing the equally confusing lines of political maneuvering and funding tying the city, the state, and the federal government together. When the crew entered the ground in Flint, they had expected to find corroded pipes. When Senators Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, and Jim Inhofe, R-OK, entered the Senate chamber in March, they had expected to find support for their funding request for Flint.

Well, it looks like there's enough disappointment to go around.

Stabenow and Inhofe's request would provide $220 million in grants and loans for Flint and other cities facing crises related to water infrastructure. The money for Flint would come from an early phase-out of the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) program. Within a few short years, the assistance to Flint would be paid off through savings.

Despite bilateral support, the Senate will head into a two-week recess with no movement on the bill.

Senator Mike Lee, R-UT, who rode a wave of Tea Party support to secure his seat in 2011, has called the bill "political grandstanding" and stopped the bill from going forward. Despite assurances that the funding would be fully paid for by savings from the ATVM fund, Lee's opposition remains one of the last major roadblocks to getting Flint and other communities the help they need.

Lee gained notoriety his first year in office when he argued that federal aid to disaster-stricken communities is unconstitutional. The freshman senator went so far as to argue that even in a situation like Hurricane Katrina, federal aid should not be released to aid recovery. Of course, when it came to flooding in his home state, Lee eagerly supported federal funding to his own constituents. "That money is there," he argued, "and I see no reason why Utah ought not be entitled to receive such federal funds."

Of course, Senators Stabenow and Inhofe have made the same argument for Flint: the money is there, and but for Lee's opposition, the rest of the Senate seems to think residents ought to be able to access it. Without Lee's support, though, that may not happen.

Senator Bill Nelson, D-FL, has also put a hold on the bill, but not in opposition to Flint. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-LA, amended the bill to increase funds available to states that increase offshore drilling. A long-time opponent of drilling off the coast of Florida, Nelson supports the bill but not the amendment. (The irony here is that, in the middle of a bill to protect people affected by environmental contaminants, Cassidy has included a proviso to support an activity that itself has generated opposition precisely because of its potential environmental hazards.)

The debate about the proposal, too, misses the key point that the crisis in Flint is unlike many disasters, including Katrina and the flooding in Utah. This wasn't an "act of God" but an act of government, at all levels. Local, state, and federal officials all failed in their responsibilities to protect the people of Flint.

Regardless of where one sits on the political spectrum, undoubtedly everyone can agree that at the very least, governments should not poison their citizens. Even Senator Lee, hopefully, can agree with this. Making government smaller, as he desires, shouldn't mean making it less accountable when it harms people. What remains to be seen is if Lee and his supporters will also agree with Sens. Stabenow and Inhofe that when this does happen, the same government should make the investment necessary to correct it.

Until they do, the people of Flint will continue to wait, hoping that disappointment in government doesn't continue to be the order of the day.