Senators Looking Beyond Flint On Lead Pipe Replacement

Democrats originally proposed legislation targeting only the high-profile corrosion problem in Michigan.
Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) are negotiating water infrastructure legislation that's been going through some changes.
Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) are negotiating water infrastructure legislation that's been going through some changes.

WASHINGTON -- Since January, members of the U.S. Senate have been negotiating a half-billion-dollar measure to help Flint, Michigan, remove lead pipes that have poisoned potentially thousands of children.

That has changed. Senators involved in the negotiation said on Tuesday that their proposal isn't just about Flint anymore -- they also want to help communities that could face a similar fate.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) told reporters the measure would have a national scope "so other folks would be able to get some of these resources if they're similarly situated."

Many cities in the U.S. have lead pipes just like Flint's. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 10 million American homes and businesses receive water from service lines that are at least partially made from lead -- a deadly neurotoxin that can cause a range of health problems, including permanent brain damage in small children.

Lead leached from Flint's pipes after the city switched its water supply and failed to control the corrosiveness of the new water. Experts say properly treated water can form a protective barrier inside lead pipes, but the barrier can corrode away if the water's chemistry changes, leading to high levels of lead in the water. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires public water systems to take action when lead levels exceed a certain amount.

The state of Michigan denied the lead problem until local doctors confirmed the substance had been found in the blood of some children in Flint.

Peters and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) cautioned that nothing is final.

"We've put some proposals forward," Peters said. "We are waiting to hear back but the discussions continue."

Stabenow said she didn't know if the measure would remain attached to an unrelated energy bill that stalled amid squabbling over the Flint provision.

"It's all up in the air," she said. "There's a lot of needs around the country."

The original measure would have provided $400 million in emergency funding for the EPA to help replace Flint's water infrastructure, according to a summary. This would require the state of Michigan to match the funds. The legislation also included $200 million to establish a Center of Excellence on Lead Exposure in Flint.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) criticized the measure in January, saying it could set a precedent for the federal government helping other places with lead pipe problems.

"Given the fact that we have about $19 trillion in debt, I think it鈥檚 fair to ask, do we want to have the federal government replacing all the infrastructure put in place by cities and states all across the country?" he asked.

Days after the floor debate broke down, Democrats offered a very different version of their initial proposal, which would have provided states $60 million to secure up to $600 million worth of loans under an existing federal program for water infrastructure financing. A summary said the financing would be available to any state that has received a presidential emergency declaration due to lead.

Michigan officials, meanwhile, have been trying to move forward with their own plans to replace Flint's pipes.

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