Senators again reach deal on Flint water crisis aid

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

WASHINGTON (AP) — For the second time in two months, the Senate has reached a bipartisan deal to address a water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead-contaminated pipes have resulted in an ongoing public health emergency.

Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan said an agreement reached Tuesday with Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma would authorize $170 million in grants and loans to replace the city's lead-contaminated pipes and other infrastructure. It includes $50 million to bolster lead-prevention programs nationwide.

The measure would be part of a larger water resources bill in the Senate.

The agreement is virtually identical to a deal reached in late February among the same three senators. That measure was attached to a broader energy bill, then derailed after Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah objected.

The measure to help Flint is needed more than ever, Peters said Tuesday.

"The people of Flint - many of whom are still using bottled water to drink, cook and bathe - are in dire need of assistance, and I look forward to helping move this legislation forward in the Senate," Peters said in a statement.

A spokesman for Lee declined to comment, saying the senator was just learning of the new proposal. Lee objected to the initial Flint aid, saying that Michigan has a budget surplus and does not need federal money to fix the problem.

Lee also objected to the way the way the bill is paid for — it redirects up to $250 million in unspent money from an Energy Department loan program for high-tech cars. Lee, a freshman elected with the help of the tea party, wants to ensure that money committed to Flint does not add to the federal deficit, spokesman Conn Carroll said last month.

Stabenow and Peters want to protect the loan portfolio known as the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program. Michigan is the hub of U.S. auto manufacturing.

While Lee is unlikely to withdraw his objection, supporters say the new plan has a greater chance of success because it is slated to become part of the Water Resources Development Act, a popular bipartisan measure that authorizes a variety of water-related projects across the country for flood control and other purposes.

If approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this week as expected, the Flint proposal would be embedded in the larger water bill. The earlier proposal was an add-on to the energy bill and faced a higher procedural hurdle to move forward.

Inhofe, who chairs the Senate's environment panel, called the Flint measure "fiscally responsible" and said it not only would help Flint, but also would address a nationwide water infrastructure crisis. The plan would use federal credit subsidies to provide incentives for up to $700 million in loan guarantees and other financing for water infrastructure projects across the country.

Flint's drinking water became tainted when the city switched from the Detroit water system and began drawing from the Flint River in 2014 to save money. The impoverished city was under state control at the time.

Regulators failed to ensure the water was treated properly, and lead from aging pipes leached into the water supply.