When the national press opened the eyes of America to the lead water contamination crisis affecting Flint, Michigan, a city of roughly 100,000 people, I told my staff it was time to get to work to see what went wrong and what could be done.
In the days following the resignation of EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, I joined Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) in sending a letter to EPA Adm. Gina McCarthy asking for the agency to explain in detail what they knew and when. I then got to work with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) on a legislative solution to address the issue not only in Flint, but across the nation, of aging water infrastructure.
Our bill, the Drinking Water Safety and Infrastructure Act, adopts a fiscally responsible approach to provide federally backed loans to states so that they can quickly address infrastructure that is contributing to a public health crisis. In this $220 million package, $50 million would also go towards programs to identify and mitigate lead poisoning, specifically in regards to children and pregnant and nursing mothers.
When our bipartisan efforts to attach this package to a moving piece of legislation failed, I vowed to fold it into the 2016 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) that my committee was in the process of developing. As part of this process, we held a hearing on April 7 where I invited as witnesses David Berger, mayor of Lima, Ohio, and Aurel Arndt, of Pennsylvania, chair of the Water Utility Council of the American Water Works Association.
In the hearing, Berger testified that while cities are striving to provide their residents with adequate water and wastewater services, the costs to comply with federal mandates have become so “unsustainable” that cities cannot handle them in an “affordable manner.” Ardnt further expounded on this crisis, stating that “often a large investment in infrastructure is required that is too large to be accommodated affordably in a short time frame only through local rates and charges.”
This led Senator Barbara Boxer and I to include in WRDA 2016 not only the Drinking Water Safety and Infrastructure Act in its entirety, but also language to address the need for a better, more cohesive partnership between local governments and the federal government to ensure adequate and safe water and wastewater infrastructure across the nation.
By April 28, Boxer and I had introduced WRDA 2016 and passed it out of committee with a strong bipartisan vote of 19 to 1. In this legislation, we included new provisions to provide critical support and reforms to help small and disadvantaged communities improve access to clean and safe drinking water. The bill would also empower states and local governments to prioritize federal mandates based on the greatest health threats for their communities and to do it on a schedule that is affordable. Not only did we want to help communities in crisis now, but also to prevent future water infrastructure emergencies.
On September 15, when the Senate passed WRDA 2016 with an overwhelming vote of 95 to 3, I pledged to not let politics, or any lame-duck session, jeopardize the emergency relief in WRDA 2016 and to get this signed into law by the end of this year. I have been standing with my colleagues in Michigan from the beginning in support of our fiscally responsible solutions to help not only the Flint community, but also other communities facing drinking water emergencies and water infrastructure challenges, solutions that a Republican-majority Senate has supported strongly.
WRDA 2016 not only provides the critical support Flint needs now but it also will help to prevent future water and wastewater infrastructure crises across the nation. WRDA 2016 is the right vehicle, and I am committed to getting this bill to the president’s desk.