Pervasive administrative failures ultimately allowed water laced with lead and other pollutants to gush into thousands of homes in Flint, Mich. The tragedy still prompts more questions than answers as lawmakers blueprint rebuilding America’s crumbling drinking water infrastructure and figure out how federal, state and local governments will work together to pick up the tab.
“Water supports every life, and water supports every job,” said Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday. “At the end of the day, someone will pay for our nationwide neglect of our drinking water systems.”
Flint’s water crisis highlighted a plethora of problems at all levels of government. No one wanted to take credit for poisoning thousands of children as the outcry made national headlines and officials struggled to provide a concerted response.
After more than two years of turmoil and an emergency declaration issued in January, Flint’s water is still not safe to drink. Officials can’t even estimate when it will be. But as catastrophic as Flint’s situation is, the crisis may only be the shallow end of America’s deep water worries.
Flint’s water became contaminated in part from coursing through lead pipes, and many other water systems in the United States are equally susceptible. The U.S. has between 3.3 and 10 million lead pipes in use each day.
Updating the nation’s 68,000 water systems could cost as much as $350 billion over the next 20 years, according to estimates.
“We need to get serious about reinforcing our aging infrastructure, or we will have to hold another hearing in the future to address more preventable tragedies,” Tonko said.
Any amount of lead in a water supply is dangerous, and exposure can cause permanent damage, especially to young children.
“Lead is a potent, irreversible neurotoxin with lifelong, multigenerational impacts,” said Mona Hanna-Attisha, programs director for Michigan’s Hurley Children Hospital. “There is no safe blood level of lead, and there are no medical treatments, there are only mitigating efforts.”
Hanna-Attisha told the House committee politicians need to leave party affiliations on the sideline and create a collective federal response.
“This is nothing short of a natural disaster,” she said. “We need to cut through the gridlock and spur significant action.”
Throughout the crisis, Flint officials blamed state authorities – who then claimed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) abandoned Michigan while it was in dire need of federal assistance.
After the emergency declaration in January, Congress held multiple hearings to determine accountability. Democrats pointed fingers at Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, and Republicans suspected EPA negligence as part of the Obama administration’s overall ineffectiveness.
Snyder testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last month and got grilled by Democrats demanding he resign for his failure to protect Michigan residents. The governor admitted responsibly in part but made it clear he won’t fall on the sword for systemic failures at the federal level.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s top Democrat, directed the most anger toward Snyder, and last week he wrote a letter claiming the governor perjured himself during testimony under oath.
Snyder told the committee he was working with local officials in Flint, but the city’s mayor told Cummings after the hearing those claims are false. She said Snyder has ignored her requests to coordinate.
“You claimed you were working with local leaders rather than marginalizing them, and you claimed you were being transparent,” Cummings wrote to Snyder. “[But] it appears that you are perpetuating the same type of heavy-handed, deficient governance that caused this disaster in the first place.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, members of both parties expressed empathy for the tragedy in Flint and said Congress needs to look at existing regulations and increasing investment in water infrastructure.
Several legislators brought up the need for long-term revisions to the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), which is supposed to safeguard communities from water containing lead. After lawmakers approved it in 1991, the act has never had significant alterations or updates.
Joel Beauvais, the EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Water, told Congress the administration is hard at work on draft revisions to the LCR. But he could not confirm a timetable, saying only that the EPA will finish sometime in 2017.
Under the current LCR, Flint did not violate a single rule during the water crisis, according to one of the witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing.
“I fear there is a picture being painted that everything is under control, but it’s really not,” Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who represents Flint but does not sit on the investigating committee, told reporters during an intermission. “I’m still waiting for the day Flint’s water is made safe again and also for the day when people feel comfortable. Those two days are not the same.”