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Federal Funding for Flint Water Crisis ‘Just a Tiny Start’

Auditi Guha

The Environmental Protection Agency will immediately release $51.5 million for Michigan to upgrade Flint's water infrastructure.

Almost three years since lead-tainted water created a public health emergency in Flint, Michigan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved $100 million in federal funds for the city. Residents and activists say the aid package is insufficient. 

U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Gary Peters (D-MI), along with U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), announced the funding in a statement last week, saying this is “good news for families in Flint who have already waited far too long for their water system to be fixed.”

The money is part of the $170 million package Congress passed at the end of 2016 that activists warned wouldn’t come close to addressing the human costs associated with the manmade lead crisis.

“There’s a lot more money needed to respond to the largest public health disaster in the history of this country,” Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, told Rewire at that time. “The human cost to this is way more than $170 million.”

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Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said last year that replacing lead service lines could cost as much as $1.5 billion, and officials expect it could take up to three years to replace pipes for 18,000 to 28,000 homes. The $100 million grant is a “huge benefit” and “much needed,” Weaver said last week in an EPA statement.

“As we prepare to start the next phase of the FAST Start pipe replacement program, these funds will give us what we need to reach our goal of replacing 6,000 pipes this year and make other needed infrastructure improvements,” Weaver said. “We look forward to the continued support of the EPA and federal government.”

The EPA will immediately release $51.5 million—$20 million of which will be provided by the State of Michigan, with the rest coming from federal funds—for lead service line replacements, distribution main improvements, and corrosion control. The remaining $68.5 million in federal emergency funding will come after additional public comment and technical reviews, according to the statement.

The EPA’s state revolving fund, which help with clean-up efforts, is one of the few clean water programs the Trump administration did not slash in its proposed budget for the agency.

“After a hard-fought victory to secure $100 million in assistance last year, the City of Flint will finally begin receiving funding to repair and replace the pipes,” the Michigan congressional Democrats said in their statement. “The people of Flint are strong and resilient, and we will continue to fight for the resources and assistance they need. It’s also past time for the State of Michigan to do everything in its power to meet its responsibilities to help the city recover from this man-made crisis.”

Flint’s health crisis began when state officials switched the city’s water supply in 2014 to save money. Contaminated water from the Flint River was supplied from April 2014 to October 2015, exposing the city’s residents for almost 18 months, according to a class action lawsuit by residents seeking $722 million in damages.

Flint reverted to buying clean water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in October 2015, but the 539 days of exposure had already ruined the lead service lines, hot water tanks, and other plumbing equipment.

Last month, Flint residents told Rewire that the water in many parts of the city remains smelly, foul colored, and unsafe for drinking, cooking or bathing. The people of Flint also pay among the highest water bills in the country: Residents paid $864.32 yearly for 60,000 gallons of water in 2015, almost three times the national average.

To add insult to injury, the city is planning to shut off the water supply for those who have not paid their bills. Activists protested shutoffs at City Hall last month.

The crisis has resulted in children suffering from lead poisoning and 12 people dead from Legionnaires’ disease, according to the New York Times.

For many in the largely Black, low-income city who continue to feel the devastating effects of the crisis, this funding is too little, too late. The Trump administration’s silence on the issue has not helped allay fears that there is no end in sight to the Flint water crisis.

Karina Petri, founder of the grassroots organization Project Flint, told Rewire in a phone interview that she is concerned about the money, given Flint’s corrupt government and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s apathy about the water poisoning.

“The funding is of concern as hundreds of millions of dollars have gone missing throughout this past year, and I worry whose hands will be in charge over this money,” she said.

Petri said the city’s pipe replacement plan does not extend to the pipes in homes that have been contaminated and continue to leech lead into tap water. “What is the plan to cover costs for individual home pipe replacement?” Petri asked.

The Stabenow-Peters-Kildee agreement was signed into law by President Obama in December. Clean water activist Melissa Mays told Rewire it is high time President Trump follow it up with further action.

“I find it interesting that some branches of the media are claiming that Trump did this for us. However, Trump did promise to help us so now it’s his turn to step up and send us additional funding because 100 million dollars is just a tiny start,” she said. “I think it would be very helpful that President Trump stop rolling back environmental regulations and getting rid of the EPA. Otherwise he’s going to usher in thousands of more Flints.”

A Reuters investigation discovered thousands of areas across the country, from Fresno to Cleveland, with levels of childhood lead poisoning higher than in Flint. Reuters found almost 3,000 areas with poisoning rates far higher than that of Flint and has compiled an interactive map of lead hotspots around the nation.

“It’s a widespread problem and we have to get a better idea of where the sources of exposure are,” California Assembly Member Bill Quirk told Reuters.

Reuters found at least 29 California neighborhoods where children’s blood tests showed rates of lead exposure at least as high as in Flint. One Fresno neighborhood recorded rates nearly three times higher than Flint’s, Reuters reported.

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