LANSING, Mich. — In the year since Flint’s man-made drinking water crisis exploded and was exposed primarily as a failure of state government, Michigan has allocated $234 million toward the public health emergency that exposed children to lead and has been linked to a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.
The state has been much slower, however, in enacting policy reforms to address problems uncovered. It is likely that no major action in the Legislature will occur until 2017, angering Democrats who are pushing for reforms, especially to the law that allows state-appointed managers to take over financially distressed municipalities but also for other changes with bipartisan appeal.
It has been four months since a bicameral, Republican-led legislative committee concluded hearings about the Flint crisis. It has yet to issue a report and policy recommendations despite the chairman initially intending to do so quickly.
Six months have passed since a bipartisan task force named by Gov. Rick Snyder made recommendations. The Republican governor, who has apologized for his administration’s mistakes that caused and prolonged the disaster, said he is addressing many of the items administratively while others will require legislative approval. A separate committee he tasked with focusing on response and recovery efforts, which includes the city’s new mayor and outsiders who uncovered the lead contamination last September, forwarded its input on the recommendations to Snyder three weeks ago.
It has been five months since the governor proposed the nation’s toughest lead-testing rules, the replacement of all underground lead service pipes in the state and the mandatory disclosure of lead plumbing in home sales and rental contracts.
“Good policy can sometimes take time to accomplish, and we would rather get it right than just say we got it done,” Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said. “Having said that, it will be more difficult to get anything legislatively done the rest of this year because of the number of initiatives already in the queue for the Legislature.”
Democrats plan to introduce a bill this week that would create an ombudsman to hear the concerns of residents living in communities under emergency management. Another bill would lower the “action level” for lead in drinking water from 15 parts per billion — the federal standard — to 10 in 2021 and 5 in 2027.
Other legislation in the works would phase out emergency managers while leaving intact other options for deficit-ridden local governments and school districts — bankruptcy, a consent agreement or a neutral evaluation process.
The two Democrats on the six-member legislative panel that investigated the crisis, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich of Flint and Rep. Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor, said they outlined their ideas in the spring but have heard nothing from the chairman, Republican Sen. Jim Stamas of Midland, since June.
“We owe it to the taxpayers. Close to $300 million were spent on fixing the problem that never should have happened in the first place. We owe it to the citizens of my community to make sure that it doesn’t happen to them or anyone else again,” Ananich said. “There is no reason to wait. And if we’re waiting because of the (November) election, then shame on them.”
Messages seeking comment were left for Stamas. Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, said the committee’s report and recommendations will be released by year’s end. Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter’s spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said the report is still being written despite “a lot of progress” over the summer.
Meekhof is interested in revising lead-testing regulations, McCann said. He also thinks there could be “forward progress” in coming months on Flint-specific bills pushed by Ananich, such as creating an authority to manage the city’s long-term recovery and authorizing a Flint college scholarship program.
But policy reforms with a statewide impact, like changing the level at which water systems must take steps to control corrosion, seem likely to be left to the next Legislature, where more than a third of the House will have new members due to term limits.
Ananich, who has been unsatisfied with the emergency response that has led to few lead service lines being replaced, said the state is using a lead standard “that we know isn’t good for anybody.” He said having multiple Flint task forces and committees ensures “that nothing actually ever gets done. I’m not sure if that was the intent, but that’s what’s happened. … It’s about pretending to do something as opposed to actually doing something.”
Democratic-backed bills proposed previously, such as restoring citizen oversight commissions in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and requiring speedier notifications to water customers when lead levels are high, have languished in GOP-controlled committees.
“These are some of the things I think are easy things that we should have done last fall or this spring because I think there’s broad agreement we need to tighten our testing protocols, we need to do a better job of protecting public health,” Irwin said.
The lead contamination occurred when the city of nearly 100,000, which was under state emergency management, switched in 2014 from the metropolitan Detroit utility system to a temporary water source, the Flint River. State environmental regulators mistakenly said not to add a chemical to prevent lead from leaching out of old pipes, and emergency managers came under scrutiny for blocking a switch back for financial reasons.
The emergency management law was blamed as a factor in the Flint disaster by Snyder’s own task force.
Irwin said Michigan should “abandon the concept that a single, all-powerful individual is what’s needed to get communities back on their feet.” He said amending the law will be difficult because Republicans think it has worked well elsewhere. But he added that “there’s no excuse not to move on many ideas” for which there is broader support.
“Our window is narrow and narrowing,” Irwin said.