WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Mich., Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin is trying protect others from drinking contaminated water by boosting federal spending for water system improvements nationwide.
“Americans have a right to expect that water coming from their taps is safe to drink,” Cardin said in a statement. “We can no longer delay needed upgrades to our infrastructure, strengthening drinking water protections and forever getting lead and other contaminants out of public water supplies.”
Cardin, a Democrat, introduced four bills in the Senate Feb. 25 with the goal of speeding up fixes to the country’s water systems and improving lead testing.
Cardin said that his legislation is important for Maryland residents because the state sees the consequences of aging and decaying water infrastructure daily.
“In Maryland there’s a water main break everyday,” Cardin said. “The conditions of our water pipes are not that different (than those in Flint). We need to modernize our water system.”
One bill, known as the “FUND Water Act,” would increase funding for two federal-state partnerships that support programs aimed at protecting drinking water and sources of clean water.
The proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 cut funding for one program, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, by 29.7 percent, and increased the other program, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, by 18.2 percent. The increase was made possible by cutting the first fund, according to Cardin’s office.
After the Obama administration released its proposed fiscal 2017 federal budget last month, Cardin, who is a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, spoke out against cutting water funds.
“It is irresponsible to steal from one fund to give to the other,” Cardin said in a statement Feb. 9. “Robust funding for both of these water funds, like in the days of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is the best way to eliminate problems in Flint, Mich., and elsewhere around the country where children and communities are being poisoned by lead and other pollutants in their water.”
Financial support for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund has been declining for the past few years. In 2014, the program received $1.4 billion. It remained the same in 2015, but was reduced in fiscal 2016 and President Barack Obama is proposing to reduce it to nearly $980 million in fiscal 2017.
According to a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency, the country will need to invest $655 billion over the next 20 years in order to fix the nation’s aging water systems. That would average around $32.75 billion every year.
Cardin’s bill is aiming to triple the appropriations for fiscal 2017 to $8.3 billion for both water programs and increase funding by 15 percent every year in order to get closer to the EPA goal. Currently, the U.S. is spending under $2 billion a year on these programs combined.
“Underfunding of our vital water and wastewater infrastructure is an issue we simply cannot ignore,” the senator said. “Pipes may be out of sight, but they cannot be out of mind.”
“We urgently need to minimize the risks to our communities and our children,” Cardin added.
A second Cardin bill would provide grants to reduce lead in water supplies and delivery systems. Another bill would require that the EPA improve its testing and reporting methods for copper and lead levels in water.
Yet another measure would require states to report high levels of lead in blood to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cardin said he would like to see more children being tested for lead poisoning.
“Clean water is one of the most basic foundations of our daily lives – we ignore its safe storage and delivery at our own peril,” he said. “Unfortunately, for too long we have overlooked the need to invest in this key aspect of our future, and children in communities like Flint are the ones being made to suffer most.”
Cardin said that he expects the bills to gain bipartisan support.
The administration’s budget proposal has been criticized by some environmental groups as short-sighted.
Mae Wu, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a blog post last month that “cutting funds that help keep pollution out of our water…and moving the money to remove pollution once it’s already in our drinking water…is no solution at all.”
“At best it is a short-term band-aid approach to addressing the chronic levels of underinvestment in our water infrastructure by local, state, and federal government,” she said, adding the water funds need more money.