Long-Delayed Help After Pollution of Flint

Hurry up.

Photographer: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Two years after Flint residents first had to start boiling their tap water, 21 months after researchers discovered it had dangerously high levels of lead, and six months after lawmakers failed to pass a bill providing the Michigan city with federal assistance to repair the system, Congress is on the verge of actually doing something about Flint's contaminated water supply. But no one should be under the impression that it will eliminate the problem.

The Flint crisis is both unique and typical. By switching Flint's water supply without treating the new water with proper chemicals several years ago, city officials damaged the system's lead pipes, and repairs will cost anywhere from $100 million to $1.5 billion. Meanwhile, lead pipes still deliver water to millions of U.S. homes. Without a plan and resources to replace them, there will be more Flints.

These are the issues the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works intends to address in a bill that would provide $100 million in grants for cities that have declared lead emergencies. It would also make available about $20 million to replace lead pipes nationwide.

Neither figure is sufficient. Flint is so far the only city to have declared an emergency, but others could follow. Even if Flint were to get every dollar of that $100 million, the process envisioned by the bill -- the state and city must prepare household-by-household proposals, each reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, before the money can be released -- could take years. And the $20 million proposed for a new nationwide program is about half what just one medium-sized city (Lansing, Michigan) spent in the last 11 years to replace its 14,000 lead service lines.

The main responsibility for replacing lead pipes lies with cities and water utilities, which have delayed unpopular rate hikes. Congress's role should be to supplement these efforts. To that end, the bill includes $70 million in seed money for a program that lets water utilities borrow from the U.S. Treasury. That could make available as much as $4.2 billion in new capital.

But those loans are generally prohibited from covering more than 49 percent of the cost of a project, leaving cities to come up with the rest. Many face similar economic challenges as Flint, and will be unable to find the money. Federal grants will need to be a bigger part of the solution. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.