BALTIMORE—After a tense negotiation over a spending bill to keep the government fully funded and operating, leaders in Congress came to an agreement this week to avoid a government shutdown. One major sticking point among congressional leaders was aid for Flint, Michigan, to help residents address its debilitating water crisis.
Democrats refused to vote for a continuing resolution to fund the government that didn’t include $220 million in aid for Flint. A Senate bid to pass a continuing resolution without acceding to this and other Democratic budgetary demands failed on Tuesday, prompting a compromise. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reached a deal to support an amendment to a separate infrastructure-spending bill that would authorize an aid package for Flint.
Once the House and Senate reconcile and pass that bill, it will provide $170 million in aid to Flint to address its lead-in-water crisis. Democratic Representative Dan Kildee, who was born in Flint and has represented its district in the House since 2013, says that the money will be used to both repair the city’s corroded pipes and establish a registry for monitoring residents who were exposed to lead, deadly bacteria, and other toxins.
“The hope is that what we end up with is language that is inclusive of both infrastructure improvements, which is literally improving the water distribution system and replacing damaged pipes, and then developing a registry to monitor and provide services to people who have had exposure over the long term,” he says.
Representative Kildee sounded a triumphant note at a summit (convened by Community Progress) in Baltimore, where he and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver both spoke about the ongoing crisis. The $170 million is an important first step in securing government assistance for the residents of Flint, and one that Representative Kildee says may prompt action from the culprit in this crisis: the state government.
“I hate to say it, but this aid has to almost shame the state into doing what they should have done a long time ago,” he says. “This is a big step, and for the time being, we're focused on this. I could argue for more federal support, but my focus is going to be on pushing the state government to live up to their obligation.”
Relief for Flint residents—who were exposed to toxins in their drinking water after the state of Michigan’s emergency manager decided to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River without taking necessary precautions to prevent erosion in the system’s pipes—could total or even exceed $1.5 billion over 10 years. Thanks to the state of emergency declared by President Obama in January, the city has already received some funds from federal agencies; philanthropy, too, has been a source of support.
“With this money, we’ve a big chunk out of what we need, but we’re not even halfway there,” Representative Kildee says. “We have to assess what is in place now, and what is not being provided by the state, before determining what the rest of it looks like.”
The very beginnings of a registry system are already in place, thanks to the efforts of Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and whistle-blower who helped to garner international attention for the Flint water crisis. Her ongoing work to highlight the appeals of Flint residents suffering from lead poisoning, Legionnaires’ disease, rashes, and other afflictions may be a resource that will help to build a monitoring system to watch for complications 5 or 10 years from now or more.
Flint does not have the appropriation from Congress yet: Final action won’t take place on the bill until after the election in November. Representative Kildee says that he regrets that Democrats were unable to secure immediate relief as part of the continuing resolution that Congress will likely pass by the end of the week. But the risk was that Flint would receive nothing at all if negotiations failed.
What the city needs next is the support of the state, which has taken next to no action to assist Flint. It may yet have a role in administering the funds from Congress: If the final bill provides the aid through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, for example, it will most likely be administered through the state.
Representative Kildee would much rather see those funds handled by the City of Flint working directly with federal agencies—another potential outcome.
“My view is this,” he says. “Once the funds are appropriated, given the level of attention this has received, even though the state government was part of the problem, the funds will be administered appropriately.”