Senate Plan Could Send $100 Million in Loans or Grants to Flint

WASHINGTON (Detroit Free Press/TNS) -

Bipartisan legislation that could potentially provide hundreds of millions of dollars to help replace aging water lines in Flint, Mich., was filed in the Senate on Wednesday.

Under the proposal, the federal Drinking Water State Revolving Fund would be authorized to make up to $100 million in subsidized loans or grants between now and October 2017 “to any state that receives an emergency declaration … to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in a public drinking water system.”

Written in such a way, the measure avoids a congressional prohibition on earmarking funds for any specific project, while clearly aiming the money at Flint. President Barack Obama in January signed an emergency declaration for the state of Michigan due to the high lead levels in water found in Flint and Genesee County.

The proposal — worth $220 million in total — also provides $70 million in subsidies that could be used to back more than $700 million in low-interest financing for water infrastructure projects through a newly created fund, some of which could be used in Flint but which is intended to spark repairs and replacement of aging water systems across the U.S.

It also authorizes $50 million for public health, though that funding is not specific to Flint, including $17.5 million to monitor the health effects of lead contamination in municipal water; and allows the state of Michigan to use the $25.9 million it has received under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund earlier this year to cover $22 million Flint already owes for earlier government loans to repair and replace parts of its water system.

But the proposal, pushed by Michigan Sens.& Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats, as well as Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla), Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and others, is still not assured of passage in the divided chamber, though it could get voted on — either as a stand-alone bill or an addition to already-passed House legislation — as early as Thursday or possibly next week.

“This has been a long effort, we’ve been working in a bipartisan way,” Peters said. “We’re hoping to get a vote soon.”

Flint’s water woes can be traced back to a decision to switch to using more corrosive water from the Flint River as its water source in April 2014 and a decision by the state Department of Environmental Quality not to require corrosion controls, which apparently allowed lead to leach from old pipes. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver is lobbying for a quick replacement of Flint’s unknown number of lead lines and damaged infrastructure, a job that has been estimated to cost anywhere from $700 million to more than $1 billion.