WASHINGTON (CN) - The House voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to require the Environmental Protection Agency to tell the public when it discovers unsafe concentrations of lead and other contaminants.
The vote came fortuitously during a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing on the health impact Flint's lead-poisoned water has on kids.
"This is personal, it breaks my heart to see what's happening in my own hometown," Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Michigan, said of the city he raised his children in.
The Safe Drinking Water Act Improved Compliance Awareness Act, sponsored by Kildee and Fred Upton, R-Michigan, passed the House 416-2, and comes on the heels of the EPA deflecting much of the blame for the Flint water crisis to the state of Michigan.
Though the agency became aware of increased lead levels after a Michigan emergency manager switched Flint's water supply from Lake Huron - which supplies water to Detroit - to the Flint River, the agency failed to sound the alarm publicly.
Kildee and Upton's bill will require the EPA to inform state officials of contamination within 24 hours. If the state fails to act, the bill will require the EPA to take the reins and notify the public.
The bill also requires the agency "to create a strategic plan for handling and improving information flow between water utilities, the states, the EPA and affected consumers," Kildee said statement, and would ensure public notification when corrosive water may cause lead to leech into drinking water.
Meanwhile, a panel of experts implored a sympathetic House Steering Committee to help secure funds to carry Flint through the crisis, which has hit the most vulnerable populations - young children and pregnant mothers - the hardest, they said.
Noting that Flint's children in particular will suffer the consequences of lead poisoning for years to come, the panel outlined long-term educational, nutritional and health needs.
"Increasing evidence shows that there is no safe blood level and that lead disproportionately impacts low-income children," Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a key figure in bringing the extent of the crisis to light, said in written testimony.
"It has been linked to criminality," she told the committee. "This is not what the city of Flint needs," she added.
"Lead has been linked to decreased IQ and an increased likelihood of ADHD, delinquent behaviors, total arrests, and increased rates of arrests involving violent offenses," Hanna-Attisha said.
The rates of children under age five with elevated lead levels in their blood after Flint switched its water supply doubled and in some cases tripled. One ward showed a 16 percent increase, she said.
Graphics and data reported
in the Washington Post were displayed for the committee, and showed lead levels through the roof when compared to the EPA's action level threshold for lead concentration, which is 15 parts per billion.
Virginia Tech testing found 158 parts per billion in Flint water, while the samples with the highest lead levels hit 13,000 parts per billion.
Hanna-Attisha sounded the alarm further by stating that her research grossly underestimates exposure and risk levels because of the half-life of lead.
"Blood testing being done now will not pick up the extent of this population-wide exposure," she said.
"We have a population traumatized," she added, recalling the looks of fear she has seen in the eyes of mothers worried about their kids.
To mitigate some of the impact, Hanna-Attisha called for early educational intervention, including funding for Head Start programs and a "Center for Excellence" that will provide up to 20 years of monitoring for Flint children affected by lead poisoning.
The challenges are numerous, she cautioned. With a 40 percent poverty rate in Flint, no public transportation and no full-service grocery stores, Hanna-Attisha said the need for support services is dire.
Other challenges remain, too. Dr. Eric Scorsone, an associate professor at Michigan State University, said budget cuts have kept the city of Flint struggling to provide municipal services.
The emergency managers overseeing Flint's water supply were an "accounting solution towards a structural deficit," he said.
Others said Flint is a cautionary tale of a national problem that extends well beyond Vehicle City.
"It is of no surprise to those of us who were here 12 years ago in very similar hearings, talking about the same issues, and begging for help for our residents here in D.C.," Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, president of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives in D.C., said as she compared the Flint crisis to the 2004 lead contamination in the District of Columbia's water.
"This is a repeat for us," she said, citing nationwide problems with corrosion control, flawed testing methods and "pre-flushing" pipes by letting them run for extended periods before testing to lower the lead content registered in water samples.
Tougher EPA regulations and tightening up of its Lead and Copper Rule are needed, Lambrinidou said. Current regulations still allow for lead levels high enough "to cause miscarriages, fetal deaths, and chronic and acute exposure to lead in infants and young children," she said.
Though Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declined an invitation to appear at the hearing, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver provided testimony.
"We are not disposable people. We deserve equal protection under the law," she said, adding that access to safe water should be a basic right.
Weaver announced a $55 million "Fast Start" program on Tuesday to replace Flint's lead pipes, noting that the governor's office would give $25 million to the effort. Weaver appealed to Congress for additional funds to make up the difference, saying that hundreds of millions more would be needed to address the broader water crisis.
After the hearing, Weaver summoned President Barack Obama.
"I'm asking right now: President Obama, come to Flint," she said to reporters after the hearing.
Weaver then elaborated on why people in Flint feel disposable.
"When you have to beg and cry and yell and scream - and you have to do that for a year before your voice is heard - and now we're almost to the two-year mark in April, that's a social injustice," Weaver said in an interview.
Kildee said he hopes Congress will hold more hearings on Flint and that Snyder will testify about who knew what, and when.
"Mainly so the individuals who did this can be held accountable personally, but also so that we can have a stronger argument for the resources we need to make it right," he said.
He also pointed his finger at the state of Michigan regarding obstacles to get Flint the help it needs.
"In the state, it's the reluctance of the governor to answer this crisis with the gravity of the crisis itself. And I think in part it's a failure to acknowledge their full responsibility," he said.
"But where the federal government has the capacity to help, it should. And so that's why we're pushing for the federal government to play a role in this," he said.
Kildee says Michigan emergency manager Darnell Earley has accepted service on a subpoena and will be providing some form of testimony to Congress, either in person or in a deposition.
"When Congress calls and we have questions, people really need to respond," Kildee said.