WASHINGTON -- Republicans have made environmental regulations their punching bag for years. But now that there's a water crisis unfolding in Flint, Michigan, they've decided that what we actually need is more rules.
"We need the Lead and Copper Rule to be updated," House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told reporters Thursday after wrapping up his third and possibly final hearing on the Flint water crisis.
Chaffetz had been asked how to prevent water crises like the one in Flint, where thousands of children have been exposed to high levels of lead in the drinking water. His response pointed to a regulation promulgated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act -- a rule that Chaffetz said the Environmental Protection Agency had not enforced aggressively enough or updated fast enough.
"Let this be a warning to every state and municipality that they need to check on lead and they need to check and pay attention to their water supply," Chaffetz said. "Unfortunately, I don't think that Flint is the only situation where there's a real problem."
The Lead and Copper Rule is a regulation the EPA first issued in 1991, requiring public water utilities to monitor and address lead and copper levels in drinking water. The EPA has said it is considering revisions to the rule, but its stakeholder engagement and consultations on it have been underway since at least 2010.
During a Thursday hearing, Chaffetz grilled EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on the timeline for revising the rule. She said the agency would have a proposal next year.
"We are actively looking at this rule," she said. "It is very challenging if you want to do a substantive revision to it."
The Flint water crisis has exposed several weaknesses of the rule, which dictates how public water systems, state regulators and the EPA monitor and control lead levels in drinking water.
The city of Flint used questionable methods to monitor lead levels, taking samples from households that didn't have lead service lines -- an approach that can mask the extent of a water lead problem. The state regulator also failed to make sure Flint treated the water to reduce its corrosiveness to lead service lines, which the rule requires because when the pipes corrode, lead goes in the water. And when the EPA found out what was going on last year, it did almost nothing, deferring to local authorities given direct responsibility under the law -- even though those authorities were dropping the ball.
In January, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) blamed the crisis on the Flint City Council for voting to change its water supply in 2013 (even though the city was under the control of an emergency manager Snyder had appointed). But when he testified before Chaffetz's committee on Thursday, Snyder abandoned that bogus talking point, instead brandishing a new one about how the Lead and Copper Rule needs to change because it is "dumb and dangerous."
In calling for a stronger rule, Snyder and Chaffetz have essentially joined forces with the whistleblowers who fought the government to expose the Flint water crisis in the first place.
Virginia Tech civil engineer Marc Edwards, whose independent testing of Flint's water raised alarms last summer, and Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician who exposed high blood lead levels in Flint kids, are part of a brain trust of non-government experts who fear the EPA's rule revisions won't go far enough. The only way to make the water safe, they say, is to force public water systems to get rid of lead pipes. But the rule as it currently stands allows the pipes to stay indefinitely.
Still, it's a little unusual to hear Republicans crying out for more rulemaking from the EPA. On the same day as the hearing, House Republicans released a budget that would dramatically cut funding for the EPA, so that the agency won't "continue to implement an unprecedented activist regulatory policy to the detriment of states, localities, small businesses, and energy consumers."
The Republican-led Congress has chopped the EPA's budget in recent years, from a high of $10.3 billion in 2010 down to $8.1 billion for 2015. The funding cuts have forced the agency to reduce its workforce, from a high of 18,110 in 1999 to just 15,408 as of 2014 -- a 15 percent staffing cut from 15 years before.
The Republicans' budget proposal last year sought to cut funding for water protection programs in particular by 24 percent. At the time, McCarthy warned the cuts “would have far-reaching consequences for the agency’s ability to ensure protections for public health and the environment.”
Last year's Republican budget bill also included provisions barring the EPA from working on specific rules under the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. McCarthy called those provisions "problematic," and said they would keep the agency from carrying out "its mission as guided by science and the law."
The Republican Congress has also tried to block the EPA from developing, finalizing or issuing new rules on a variety of issues by adding riders to appropriation bills. These issues include coal ash disposal, stormwater and agricultural runoff, lead paint and toxic exposures, just to name a few.
Most recently, Republicans have tried to interfere with the EPA's effort to clarify which bodies of water qualify for protection under the Clean Water Act -- an effort meant to ensure that the streams and lakes that provide America's drinking water are kept safe. The Republican-led Congress passed a measure in January blocking the agency's rule from going into effect, though President Barack Obama vetoed that legislation.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, has said he would do away with the EPA as part of his effort to balance the budget.
Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) noted the dissonance between Chaffetz and other committee Republicans calling out for stronger rules while also frequently bashing the EPA.
“Republicans have been absolutely slamming the EPA for overreaching at every possible turn,” Clay said during Thursday's hearing. “Now they criticize the EPA for not doing more when Governor Snyder fell down on the job."
Reporters asked Chaffetz about the apparent contradiction after the hearing.
"You gotta look at it on a case-by-case basis," he said.