The drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich. has become a burgeoning industry for Washington, D.C., lobbyists.
Two dozen entities — including children’s health advocates, environmental organizations, infrastructure groups, law firms and unions — reported lobbying on the Flint debacle during the first three months of 2016, according to a review of lobbying disclosure records by Greenwire. Specifically, the groups are lobbying on legislation introduced on Capitol Hill that would provide aid to Flint’s residents and repair the city’s water infrastructure.
Flint’s troubles began when the city switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in a cost-saving move. After failing to implement corrosion controls in treating its water, the city found lead and other contaminants had leached into its drinking water and poisoned its residents. President Obama declared a state of emergency in response to the Flint crisis earlier this year, and state and federal government officials have come under scrutiny for their slow response to the disaster.
Consequently, lawmakers in D.C. have proposed several bills, including a Flint aid package that has been championed by Michigan’s congressional delegation and may yet land on the president’s desk. Lobbyists have followed, sensing national implications from the Flint crisis for America’s decaying system of pipes and waterways, as well as impoverished communities.
"As far as a legislative issue, [the Natural Resources Defense Council] has been working on clean water and drinking water issues for decades, and this has been brought to the forefront [by Flint]," said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for NRDC. "It’s not just Flint."
NRDC has been following the crisis in Flint for some time. Last October, the environmental group and other advocacy organizations issued a petition for U.S. EPA to take emergency action under the Clean Water Act in response to Flint.
EPA, after the Flint’s drinking water disaster became national news, would take such action in January this year. Now, NRDC along with several others is pushing for an aid package for the city on Capitol Hill.
That relief measure seemed destined to be included in a comprehensive energy bill moving forward in the Senate. Nevertheless, that bill passed the upper chamber without the Flint aid after Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) protested its inclusion. Now, $220 million in relief for Flint has found a new home in the Senate’s Water Resources Development Act, which easily passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last week (Greenwire, April 28).
"We were really disappointed that didn’t end up in the energy bill," Slesinger said. "Now it’s in WRDA, we’re hoping we can go forward."
The NRDC lobbyist noted the wide support for the Flint aid as why he is optimistic it will become law this year.
Slesinger pointed to bipartisan support for Flint from Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), as well as from the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, as well as from Michigan’s Democratic senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters.
"Sen. Inhofe is not considered a lily liberal who supports wasteful spending, and he is a leader on this along with Sen. Boxer, who has been a champion on these issues, as well as Sens. Peters and Stabenow," he said. "I think there is a chance of getting that money — it’s not enough — but we need to rebuild that [water] infrastructure."
Disclosure reports show that other legislation on Flint has attracted lobbyists’ attention, including a $800 million aid package for the city proposed by Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), whose congressional district includes Flint. Kildee’s plan would replace Flint’s water lines, enhance water testing and provide long-term health care for the more than 9,000 city children who have been poisoned with lead-tainted water (E&ENews PM, Feb. 4).
Several on K Street have focused on water infrastructure issues arising from Flint.
K Street firms, unions in the mix
Gephardt Government Affairs included the crisis among issues it lobbied on last quarter for the Water Quality Association. Among those lobbying at the firm on Flint was former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, according to records.
In addition, documents show that the Wessel Group Inc. reported lobbying on "legislative responses" to Flint for three different clients so far this year: the Alliance for American Manufacturing, McWane Inc. and the United Steelworkers. Michael Wessel, a former Gephardt aide and longtime Democratic political operative, was among the firm’s lobbyists working on the issue.
Former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), a partner at Venable LLP, has also been "reaching out to officials regarding the Flint water crisis," according to his firm’s lobbying registration for the Garretson Resolution Group, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based service provider for people who are settling personal injury claims (Greenwire, April 20).
Many unions have joined in the lobbying fray on Flint, such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the nation’s largest labor federation, as well as powerful players in labor, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union.
Mary Kusler, director of government relations for the National Education Association, said her union is lobbying on the Flint drinking water crisis not just because NEA represents teachers affected by the disaster.
"What Flint brings to a head is elected leaders were looking to save a buck and harmed children in the process. And that is why this goes further," Kusler said. "We care because it was children and families that were hurt. Children and families can’t cook, can’t bathe, can’t drink the water coming out of their faucets."
Kusler said the teachers’ union was lobbying for aid to repair Flint’s water infrastructure, as well as relief for the city’s social needs and long-term special education costs.
"There is going to be a higher rate of special education identification. There is going to be a higher rate of people having health and special needs costs throughout their lives," Kusler said. "They [Flint] don’t have the money to make up for those costs."
Others in the influence industry have yet to see legislation introduced in response to the Flint crisis that address their clients’ needs.
Brett Heimov and his firm, Envision Strategy, is lobbying for Napoli Shkolnik PLLC, a law firm representing about 1,000 clients in Flint who filed a lawsuit in response to the city’s drinking water crisis.
Heimov said his firm is looking for legislation similar to the Zadroga Act, which provides health care services to 9/11 first responders, to help the residents of Flint.
"Our goal is create a victims’ compensation fund that would provide long-term health care, education services, and then a compensation fund itself where people would be compensated for their losses instead of having to go to the court for the next five years," Heimov said. "We are hoping to get a bill introduced that deals directly with the victims."
Despite the bumps in the road for a Flint aid package on Capitol Hill, Heimov believes relief will be forthcoming for the city. He noted the attention the crisis has received on the presidential campaign trail this year, as well as Obama’s visit to Flint this week (Greenwire, April 27).
"I think there was a massive government failure here, and people recognize that something needs to be done," Heimov said.