Flint water crisis a focus as Senate takes up energy policy bill

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Legislation to address the water crisis in Flint, Michigan is likely as the Senate takes up a bipartisan bill on energy policy.

Preliminary votes on the overall energy bill are expected as soon as Thursday as the Senate debates the first comprehensive energy legislation in nine years.

The wide-ranging bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., would update building codes to increase energy efficiency, strengthen electric grid safety standards and promote development of an array of energy forms, from renewables such as solar and wind power, to natural gas, hydropower and even geothermal energy.

The bill also would speed federal approval of projects to export liquefied natural gas to Europe and Asia and reauthorize a half-billion dollar conservation fund that protects parks, public lands, historic sites and battlefields.

The bill as drafted has widespread, bipartisan support that Murkowski, Cantwell and other senators touted Wednesday in speeches on the Senate floor.

"This is a good bill. It is designed to go the distance and designed to make a difference," said Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The bill will boost the economy, improve national security and increase international competitiveness — all at the same time, Murkowski said.

"Let's show the Senate can work. Let's not go crazy with a bunch of ancillary things," said Cantwell, the top Democrat on the energy panel. "It doesn't matter whether you're a Republican or Democrat, voters across the nation want to see more clean energy deployed."

But harmony over the bill is not likely to last. Fierce, partisan fights are expected as lawmakers offer amendments responding to President Barack Obama's energy policies and efforts to slow climate change.

Republicans promised amendments to block an administration plan to halt new coal leases on federal lands, for instance, while Democrats said they would push policies to address global warming. Battles also are expected over the 11-year-old Renewable Fuel Standard, which promotes ethanol and other biofuels, as well as Republican plans to block a controversial federal rule protecting small stream and tributaries.

Democratic Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan are expected to offer an amendment aimed at protecting the water supply in Flint, Michigan.

Flint's water became contaminated when the financially struggling city switched from the Detroit municipal system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. State officials were in charge of the city at the time.

Regulators failed to ensure the new water was treated properly and lead from pipes leached into the water supply. Some children's blood has tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said as many as 7,000 children have been "poisoned because of lack of proper government oversight" in Flint.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, tried to "save a few bucks with the water and, in the process, poisoned lots of people."

Reid said the Senate should focus on other municipal water supplies beyond Flint. "We have a lot of communities around this country who have lead pipes, and a very deteriorating water system," he said.

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