February 03, 2016

Stabenow / Peters Amendment to S. 2012

I rise today in support of the Stabenow / Peters Amendment on the crisis going on in Flint, MI.

I support this Amendment, but I hope we do not lose sight of the big picture: that this is happening in cities and towns all across America.

-         In Michigan, it’s not only Flint, but parts of Grand Rapids, Jackson, Detroit, Saginaw, Muskegon, Holland and several other cities, all have seen high blood lead levels in their children.

-         Sebring, OH just this week closed schools for 3 days because of lead in their tap water and in Toledo, officials have long treated the water with phosphates to prevent leaching of lead.

-         Eleven cities and two counties in New Jersey had higher percentages of children with elevated lead levels than Flint, Michigan, state lawmakers and advocacy groups said Monday of this week.

-         And here in Washington, DC in the early part of the last decade, lead leached into the water of possibly 42,000 children.

And in Maryland as well:

-         In the City of Baltimore, high lead levels in schools prompted officials to turn off drinking fountains and pass out bottled water instead—in every school in the city.

-         And across the state of Maryland, every 1 and 2 year old in the ENTIRE STATE will be tested for lead—that is 175,000 children—because they are ALL at risk.

So while I support this amendment, which would direct $400 million in matching federal funds to the city of Flint, MI, and forgive the city’s previous Revolving Fund loans, $400 million is about 1/3 of what we are currently appropriating every year for Drinking Water infrastructure for the entire country.

This amount is woefully inadequate. According to the EPA’s most recent estimates, more than $655 billion may have been needed to repair and replace drinking water and wastewater infrastructure nationwide over the next 20 years. This comes to $32.75 billion per year, every year, for the next 20 years, yet currently we only spend approximately $3 billion per year combined on drinking water and waste water infrastructure state revolving funds--one tenth the amount necessary.

And so I ask my colleagues, if it costs $400 million to fix the pipes in Flint, MI, are we going to come to an agreement that we need a substantial increase in the amount of funds appropriated for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving funds to help all of our American cities?

Because the stakes could not be higher.

There are so many things that have gone wrong in Flint, MI:

-         First, and most directly, the failure of the Governor and his appointed Emergency Managers to identify and address the problem as it grew more and more apparent.

-         Second, a declining and increasingly impoverished population, which has gutted the tax base and eliminated the ability to pay back the loans the city might receive from the federal government to change out their pipes. 

-         And, as I said, there is not nearly enough money in these revolving loan funds to keep up to date the drinking and waste water infrastructure in this country even if cities could pay the loans back.  

The list goes on and on—but this list is not unique to Flint. These demographic and fiscal characteristics are similar to many, many cities of every size in the US, in almost every state.

But none of the things that have gone wrong in Flint are more distressing than the possibility that children may have suffered irreversible damage to their developing brains from exposure to lead.

Exposure to even low levels of lead can profoundly affect children’s behavior, growth rates, and—perhaps most worrying—their intelligence over time. Higher levels of lead in a child’s blood can lead to severe learning disabilities and hand-eye coordination, and even a propensity toward violence. Younger children and fetuses are especially vulnerable to even small exposure to lead—whether it be in tap water, lead paint, lead in soil still left from the days of leaded gasoline, lead in children’s toys and jewelry—the list goes on and on. Further, it is impossible to gauge how a specific child will be affected because the developmental impacts of lead poisoning can take years to become apparent.

In fact, the health effects are so severe, our nation’s health experts have declared that there is NO SAFE LEVEL of lead in a child’s blood. Period.

I also want to highlight a quote from an article in the New York Times on January 29, 2016 here:

Emails released by the office of [Michigan] Gov. Rick Snyder last week referred to a resident who said she was told by a state nurse in January 2015, regarding her son’s elevated blood lead level, “It is just a few IQ points. ... It is not the end of the world.”

Dr. Hanna-Attisha [the doctor primarily responsible for bringing this issue in Flint to light] and others who have studied lead poisoning have a sharply different view of lead exposure, for which there is no cure. “If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said.

The work of the institutions in the state of Maryland to combat lead exposure is exemplary. Baltimore’s Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning is a nonprofit organization dedicated to services and advocacy on the behalf of families afflicted by lead poisoning. This organization started as a grassroots effort by Maryland parents who saw a problem in their communities, and who sought innovative solutions. The Coalition has grown nationally, founding the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative to provide a holistic approach for safer and greener living spaces for American families. The Coalition has dozens of local partners, including the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the University Of Maryland School Of Law. Together, I am proud to say that these Maryland institutions are paving the way to combat lead poisoning and researching innovative legal solutions to a tragic problem.

But we cannot rely on nonprofits to fix this problem for us. The stakes are too high and the solutions too costly. We have a duty to these children to make sure their drinking water is safe.

Make no mistake: massive lead poisoning of an entire city’s children from any source robs our country of an entire generation of great minds—minds which are core to the futures of our most vulnerable communities.

If we insist people pick themselves up by their bootstraps, if we say that if you are smart, and if you work hard, the American Dream means that you can be anything you want to be, then we cannot systematically poison an entire generation of low income children, dooming them to a lifetime limited potential. These children, who already suffer in the worst schools in America, and who do not have the means to simply move to another city where the water is safe and the education systems are strong so they can pull themselves out of poverty once and for all.

And so I call on my colleagues in the Senate: not only to vote yes on the Stabenow/Peters Amendment, but to recommit to finding a path forward to provide safe drinking water not just of one American city, but all American cities.