How Congress Should Respond to the Flint Water Crisis

A February 2016 photo of the Flint Water Plant tower in Michigan.

In recent years, a pernicious ideology has taken hold in Michigan and across the country: cut costs and roll back regulations no matter the consequences. Tragically, for the residents of Flint, Michigan, this approach to governance has produced a public health crisis that will affect the lives of thousands of people—especially young children—for decades to come.

This outcome was both foreseeable and preventable.

In April 2013, the state-appointed emergency manager decided to stop purchasing safe drinking water from Detroit. Their plan was to build a new pipeline to nearby Lake Huron. However, government officials had no plan for how to provide clean water during the three- to four-year construction period. The need for another water source prompted local officials to tap into the heavily polluted Flint River.

For decades, the Flint River has served as the collection point for water runoff from the heavily industrialized surrounding area. As a result, the Flint River has approximately eight times more chloride than water from the Detroit River and Lake Huron—both of which are the primary sources used by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. This difference in chloride levels is critical; chloride is highly corrosive to iron and lead pipes, which are common in both older homes and the service lines that connect homes to the water utility distribution pipes in the region. As pipes corrode, lead flakes off and frequently contaminates the water at dangerously high levels.

Corrosive chemicals, such as chloride, have long damaged distribution pipes and household plumbing. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, requires water systems to use chemicals that are designed to inhibit corrosion in order to prevent lead contamination of drinking water. For many years, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department has followed this basic practice, which is especially important in regions with source waters that are polluted by industrial or agricultural contaminants. Officials in Flint, however, ignored decades of research, established best practices, and legal obligation, and chose to switch the city’s water source over to the corrosive water of the Flint River without instituting a program to inhibit corrosive chemicals.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and state health and environmental regulators compounded this terrible decisionmaking by ignoring and disparaging Flint residents who complained about poor water quality and foul odors. For more than a year, many city residents were forced to drink water with lead levels that were nearly twice as high as the federal limit. These officials’ negligence has caused a public health disaster: Lead exposure produces a host of long-term health effects, including high blood pressure, kidney damage, memory loss, and neurological disorders.

As the nation begins to understand the effect that the Flint water crisis has had on public health, state and federal officials must work together to bring the necessary resources to bear in order to solve this problem and ensure that the people of Flint have water that is safe enough to drink.

We must never let this happen again

The Flint water crisis provides a real opportunity to increase funding for water infrastructure, improve testing and monitoring, and reform regulatory oversight. In the coming months, Congress should take the following four steps:

First, federal lawmakers should boost the amount of resources that are available for drinking water infrastructure—especially for disadvantaged communities. Congress should reconsider the Assistance, Quality, and Affordability Act, or AQUA Act. The proposed 2010 bill—which passed in the House of Representatives with bipartisan and near unanimous support but died in the Senate—would substantially increase the funding authorization for drinking water infrastructure.

In fiscal year 2015, Congress appropriated only $900 million for infrastructure projects to improve drinking water quality and distribution. By comparison, the AQUA Act would have authorized an increase in annual spending to $1.8 billion—double that of the current levels. In addition, the AQUA Act would have required states to prioritize infrastructure funding and loans for water systems that serve disadvantaged communities. Without this additional assistance and prioritization requirement, many low-income communities will not be able to finance necessary upgrades to prevent corrosion and lead exposure, among other hazards.

Second, Congress should increase civil penalties against state and local authorities that fail to carry out their responsibility to provide residents with safe and clean drinking water. Current federal law sets caps on the total amount of fines that may be levied against bad actors. These caps should be lifted and daily fines for noncompliance should be increased.

Third, the EPA should be given additional authority to take action and increase transparency. For instance, currently, the EPA is required to offer technical assistance to a public water system prior to initiating an enforcement action. While technical assistance is an important tool in supporting state efforts, it may not be appropriate in all cases—such as when public officials refuse to comply with the law. Additionally, water authorities should be required to electronically provide drinking water monitoring information to the EPA so that it can be made readily available to the public.

Fourth, while state and local authorities have the primary responsibility for compliance with drinking water requirements, this should not prevent EPA leadership and staff from warning the public about potential health hazards. In fact, Congress should make clear that, in the absence of state communication, agency personnel have an affirmative obligation to publicly report potential hazards to drinking water within 90 days of receiving any information about them.

Taken together, these reforms would help ensure that no community has to suffer from prolonged exposure to dangerous drinking water. Furthermore, these reforms would provide the regulatory authority for the EPA to conduct meaningful oversight. Finally, they would provide a clear mandate for action to alert the public in the future and elevate public health and safety over any administrative barriers.

Kevin DeGood is the Director of Infrastructure Policy at the Center for American Progress. Greg Dotson is the Vice President for Energy Policy at the Center.