Federal Water Tap, February 8: First Flint Hearing in Congress Combines Outrage and Blame

The Rundown

House Oversight Committee hosts first of what will be many Flint hearings while the FBI begins investigating. Water infrastructure bills are introduced in Congress while a fight over Flint funding derails a big energy bill. The nation’s largest dam removal project, on the Klamath River, took a step forward. The U.S. Forest Service releases a report on drought and forests. And on February 9, the White House will release the 2017 budget.

“When they started covering up at that point, I personally believe it was criminal.” — Marc Edwards on the ramifications of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials not responding after receiving a memo in April 2015 from a staff member who was concerned about high lead levels in Flint. Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor and one of the nation’s top experts on lead in drinking water, testified before the House Oversight Committee on February 3.

By the Numbers

220 million: Number of trees planted in the Great Plains between 1937 and 1942 to avoid a repeat of the Dust Bowl. (U.S. Forest Service)

10 percent: Decline in water use in the Atlanta metro area between 2000 and 2015, even though population grew by 20 percent. Because of this, Georgia now says it does not need a new reservoir that is going through federal permitting. (Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

$US 8 million: Funding for the Pakistan-U.S. Science and Technology Cooperation Program, which will research water, energy, and information technology. (U.S. Embassy in Pakistan)

News Briefs

Flint Hearing in Congress
The first congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis was a four-hour event marked by passion, outrage, and combative bewilderment.

“This is the United States of America,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, in his opening statement. “This isn’t supposed to happen here. We’re not some third world country where you get 100,000 people who get poisoned — poisoned — for long periods of time.”

The committee sought answers, but it was stymied by the refusal of key players — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder; Susan Hedman, the EPA regional administrator who resigned on February 1; and Darnell Earley, the emergency manager of Flint when the city decided to switch its water source — to appear as witnesses.

Chaffetz said that he issued subpoenas to Hedman and Earley to force them to testify by the end of the month. Democrats on the Republican-led committee want Snyder, a Republican, to appear too. The committee leaders did not ask the governor to testify.

“Obviously Gov. Snyder should have to answer for his decisions,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD).

One of the witnesses who testified had strong statement. The EPA regional office in Chicago, once it found out about the contamination in April 2015, could have been the hero, said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who has been doing tests on Flint’s water since last August. Instead, the office silenced the employee, Miguel del Toral.

“When they started covering up at that point, I personally believe it was criminal,” Edwards said.

“That’s why we will continue to investigate this,” Chaffetz responded.

Flint Aid Derails Energy Bill
Michigan representatives were adamant that the energy bill up for discussion in the Senate would include money for Flint. When Republicans balked at the dollar amount, the Democrats blocked the bill.

The White House said that Congress should help out Flint, but did not mention a dollar figure.

Passing legislation would show the people of Flint that all levels of government are “going to be committed to following through on the kind of response that will be necessary to allow Flint to recover and come back stronger than ever,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

More Flint-related Legislation
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), who is from Flint, introduced a bill to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act. The bill requires public water systems to notify a resident whose water tests above federal limits for lead. The bill also requires the EPA to notify residents if the utility fails to do so.

Water Infrastructure Legislation
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced the Water Infrastructure Trust Fund Act, which would help raise money for U.S. water systems through a form of voluntary tax. Businesses who sign up for the program would place a clean-water label on their products and contribute $0.03 to the fund for each unit that bears the logo. The revenue would feed into existing federal water infrastructure programs: the clean water and drinking water revolving funds. Blumenauer introduced a similar bill in 2013 without success.

Drug Disposal Legislation
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) plans to introduce the Pharmaceutical Stewardship Act, which will establish a national drug disposal program funded by pharmaceutical industry. The goal is to prevent drug abuse and reduce the amount of pharmaceutical contaminants in land and water. Slaughter introduced a similar bill in 2011 without success.

Studies and Reports

Drought and Forests
Because drought kills tree and changes forest composition, managing the nation’s forests for drought has a significant effect on water availability, according to a U.S. Forest Service report.

The 302-page report is an extensive analysis of the difficulty and uncertainty in relating drought, forest health, water supply, and water quality.

Edwards Aquifer
The U.S. Geological Survey has a new report on drought and the Edwards Aquifer, a source of drinking water in central Texas and a vital contributor to the region’s springs and rivers. Tubing on the San Marcos during hot summer days wouldn’t be possible without the Edwards.

Defense Department and Climate Change
The U.S. Defense Department released a 12-page memo that outlines each agency’s role in adapting the U.S. military to climate change, in its facilities, technology, operations, and strategy.

On the Radar

Second Flint Hearing
The House Energy and Commerce Committee announced that it will hold a hearing in March on the Flint scandal and its implications for public health.

2017 Budget
On February 9, President Obama will release his last budget request. An area to watch is the revolving funds for clean water and drinking water. Politico reports that the president will reduce the clean water fund and boost spending on the drinking water fund.

The president requests reductions nearly every year, but the reductions are typically overturned. Congress is firm in its support for this program, though not firm enough to dramatically raise spending. Rep. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said that Congress will again reject spending cuts to the funds.

Path to Remove Klamath Dams
Though Congress failed to pass comprehensive legislation to deal with water supply and ecosystem restoration in the Klamath River Basin, the main players will still attempt to accomplish a major accomplishment: removal of four hydropower dams on the river’s main stem. It would be the largest dam removal project in U.S. history.

The federal government along with California, Oregon, and PacifiCorp, the power company, agreed to pursue dam removal through the federal dam licensing process. They will work with dozens of other parties to amend an agreement that was signed in 2010. The target date for the signing of the new agreement is February 29. If all goes according to plan, legal responsibility of the dams would be transferred from PacifiCorp to an outside party, and they would be torn down in 2020.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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