A public epidemic has become public knowledge, thanks, in a manner of speaking, to egregious negligence by Michigan state and local Flint officials.
We’ve learned that millions of children are at risk of lead poisoning — or already have it. Undoubtedly adults too. And they can suffer a wide range of harms. But such research as we have focuses on young children because they’re at highest risk for lifelong damages.
So what then have our federal policymakers done since all this became common knowledge?
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken a first step toward strengthening protections against the most common sources of lead poisoning — old house paint and the soil around housing.
But I’ll defer that and focus here on water because it’s been made newly newsworthy by a cliffhanger we may see again.
The administration sent water, filters, funds and folks to Flint shortly after Michigan’s governor declared a state of emergency. But there are still reportedly problems with the water there. And they’ll cost many millions of dollars to fix.
Flint is hardly the only community with lead in the water that comes out of faucets in homes and schools. And, as with Flint, dumping some chemicals into the water supply won’t solve the problem. Lead pipes corrode and have to be replaced.
USA Today reports nearly 2,000 other water systems with higher lead levels than the maximum the Environmental Protection Agency has set as a trigger for action. They’re in all 50 states, it says.
In the District of Columbia too, it seems, though our big lead-in-the-water crisis supposedly ended in 2005 — not, however, because the District no longer has lead pipes. And not apparently because the chemicals added to the water protect us.
The agency responsible for public buildings recently found that over half the public school water systems it tested had lead levels higher than the EPA trigger.
That’s three times higher than what the Centers for Disease Control now says should trigger public health actions. So we’ve had a child health emergency for some time.
The Senate recently approved $220 million to address leaded water problems — this by an overwhelming majority. About $100 million would go to states with drinking water emergencies.
They’d get an additional $70 million to subsidize (not by much) loans for related infrastructure projects. Another $50 million would be divvied up among small, economically disadvantaged communities to help them comply with existing drinking water standards.
This much is fully offset in the much larger water resources development bill. The substantial investments needed to remedy water infrastructure problems would hinge on the outcomes of the annual budget process.
Leading Senate Democrats wanted the paid-for piece included in the continuing resolution needed to prevent a government shutdown. The Republican leadership would have none of it, though it included more than twice as much to aid recently-flooded communities, mainly in Louisiana.
A stalemate then because not enough Democrats would agree to vote on the CR unless it did something about both water crises. And the House couldn’t pass a CR without Democrats because too many Republicans there object to such a short-term stopgap.
A compromise forged by the House Speaker and Democratic Minority Leader averted this different sort of crisis. Seems that impending government shutdowns, like hangings, concentrate the mind wonderfully.
Basically, they agreed to amend the House version of the water resources bill. It had no funds for Flint or any other community whose residents, the youngest especially, are at risk of lead poisoning.
The amended bill, also passed by a large majority, would add $170 million. So there may be some money in the pipeline for some communities with lead in their water pipelines in the upcoming year.
But the $50 million difference in emergency spending is only one of many differences between the House and Senate bills. So negotiators will have a lot of work to do. And whatever they come up with will, of course, have to pass in both the House and Senate.
No such delay or doubts for the flooded communities, however, because their half million is in the CR. Some people’s water crises are more urgent than others.
Now, if lead-laden water had been flowing into members’ own homes — or out of the drinking fountains in their children’s schools ….