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5 things to know about the state's new "plain English" draft fixes to "dumb and dangerous" lead rule

Oct 19, 2017

Most water systems operators around the state had a hint this was coming.

The Flint water crisis has reverberated among water professionals working from Muskegon and Grand Haven all through the state and to the Detroit metro area; where the bulk of the state's drinking water lines are still buried.

Groups of professionals who pride themselves on providing clean, safe drinking water have been cautiously waiting to hear – how is this situation in Flint going to affect me and the community I serve?

In case you missed it, Governor Rick Snyder is on a mission to strengthen the Lead and Copper Rule, the regulation that he’s regularly called "dumb and dangerous" after the crisis in Flint.

So far, Republican lawmakers have been cool to the idea of increasing regulations.

But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is moving forward with regulatory changes.

Michigan Radio obtained a copy of the proposed changes that Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality sent a stakeholder group this week for feedback. It is important to note it is only a draft at this time. But it does provide a look at some of the details the agency is considering changing.

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If the draft is adopted, Michigan would have one of the toughest lead rules in the country, and perhaps the world.

  1. Goodbye lead water pipes – at no cost to the homeowner

This is the issue that’s going to get the most pushback from water operators and the cities that run them, hands down.

Right now, cities are only required to replace lead service lines, the underground pipes that hook a home up to a water main, as a sort of last resort to fix issues with lead in water.

Many cities do replacement work anyway, as part of regular maintenance. But usually they replace just half of a lead service line. That’s because cities typically only own one half of a lead line. The section closest to the home is private property.

So when cities replace a water main and “replace” lead service lines with it – most of the time workers are simply replacing the section of lead pipe the city owns, while still leaving the rest of the lead pipe connected to the home.

Under the new rule, every city, even if water samples show no major lead issues, would have to make a plan and replace EVERY lead line, the full lead line, including the private side at PUBLIC expense.

That’s huge, because many operators do not believe lead is a problem in their water system and because it would cost a massive amount of money.

"If you don't have a large piggy bank you can only afford what you can afford to do. I just wish that free money would fall out of the sky. I don't see that either." - Lincoln Park Public Services Director John Kozuh

Under the draft rule, water systems with 5,000 or fewer lead service lines would have up to five years to replace them. Those with 10,000 lines or more would have 15 years, “or longer if approved by the state.”

Information from the MDEQ's draft changes to the lead and copper rule.

Detroit has an estimated 125,000 lead service lines, by far the most of any in Michigan. Detroit Water and Sewer Department deputy director Polencia Mobley said it would cost $400 million to $500 million to replace them all.

“The estimate to replace service lines is equivalent to what we’re planning to spend on water main replacement and sewer rehab over the next five years combined,” Mobley said.

Considering Detroit’s housing stock, sometimes the cost to replace the full lead service line would be worth almost as much as the home’s value.

  1. But first, FIND those lead water pipes – a massive hunt

Under the proposal, cities that don’t know where their lead service lines are would have a year and a half to figure out the location and the total number they have.

Dozens of cities, like Lincoln Park, would have to first figure out where its lead service lines are.

Department Services Director John Kozuh flips through old index cards in an army green, five foot tall filing cabinet. Some of the handwritten cards say whether there’s a lead or copper drinking water pipe going into a home… but many don’t.

John Kozuh thumbs through Lincoln Parks' old water service line records. He had one employee going drawer by drawer entering the information there is on the cards into a database.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

“This one doesn’t tell us a material either. But I don’t have anything else to go by,” Kozuh said.

Lincoln Park is not alone. Dozens of cities with lead service lines tell Michigan Radio they still don’t know how many they have or where they are.

  1. Tell the public – and the health department

MDEQ wants communities serving more than 50,000 people to start a “lead public awareness campaign” regardless of whether water samples uncover no major spike in lead. That council should, among other things, establish a “water system advisory council” that holds public meetings regularly each year.

Communities that supply water to more than 10,000 people would have to post a summary about their lead service lines on a public website. MDEQ is proposing that cities be prepared to give people information about the water line to their home and how to get their water tested.

The draft rules establish a “Household Advisory Level,” something that’s not covered at all under the current federal rule. Individuals whose water tests show lead levels at or above 40 parts per billion should be notified within three days, instead of 30, and they’d get information on how to request blood lead level testing.

The water system would also have to notify the local health department when there’s a high household level. They would also tell MDEQ, which in turn would refer to Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services “for escalated response.”

  1. Lower the lead “action level” for a community’s overall lead water levels from 15 to 10 ppb

The lead action level is not a health based standard. The CDC says there is no safe level of lead in water. The action level is designed to see if a water system needs corrosion control treatment or to change its treatment to prevent lead and other metals from leaching into tap water.

The draft copy calls for the action level to change by January 2021.

If Michigan lowered the action level, it would be the toughest standard in the country.

  1. Big cities test water every year for lead – instead of once every three years (and other technical changes)

There are also some technical, but significant changes to the rules around testing procedures and water quality parameters.  

Large water systems serving more than 50,000 people would have to test for lead every single summer. Currently, the vast majority of water systems test once every three years.

When cities test water from a home with lead service lines, they’d have to take two samples, instead of one and use the sample with the highest lead level to figure out if the city is exceeding the action level. This kind of testing would sample lead in water from interior fixtures and the lead service line, both of which can contribute to lead in water, but typically fly under the radar in compliance testing.  

Other technical changes include maintaining corrosion control treatment in water systems that are already using it. Not requiring this treatment was one of the main causes of the Flint water crisis.

What’s next?

MDEQ gave a group of stakeholders the draft copy this week. According to a draft schedule, the group will meet privately three times over the next few weeks to give the agency feedback on the draft. A public meeting is tentatively set for November 29th in Lansing.

Chuck Hersey is a policy consultant working for Oakland County’s water resources commissioner. He’s on the stakeholder group. He wants MDEQ to take a step back and figure out specific public health goals before adopting such wide-reaching changes to the rules. 

“If we spend a ton of money doing things for lead like lead line replacement that don’t produce results we want, instead of doing something else for lead, or for other pollutants that we’re not paying attention to that are more significant, how are we improving public health in that scenario?” Hersey asked.

Other stakeholders say they’d like to see the state wait until the U.S. EPA adopts its own revisions to the federal Lead and Copper Rule. Those have been in the works for years and could come out in 2018.

But many note the Flint water crisis exposed flaws in the lead regulations and that Michigan shouldn’t wait to fix those.

“We think the effort (by Governor Rick Snyder) is long overdue and needed to protect drinking water across the state of Michigan,” said James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council.

Clift emphasizes the importance of closing testing loopholes, but especially increasing transparency for the public.

“Every citizen has a right to know if there’s a lead service line leading to their home,” Clift said. “Should I have it tested? Should I be taking steps to protect my family? These are questions local governments should be able to provide.”