DEQ: New lead regulations will likely uncover more impacted communities

City of Flint, Michigan water, filter distribution, October 5, 2016. | USDA photo by Lance Cheung, Flickr

As multiple lawsuits stemming from the Flint water crisis drag on, Michigan may soon find that other cities have lead levels higher than allowed by state regulations.

Top Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) officials told a panel of lawmakers Thursday that the state’s 2018 update to the Lead and Copper Rule, adopted under former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, will likely lead to the discovery of more cities where lead levels exceed the state action limit.

Flint River | Wikipedia Commons

In the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, the state adopted the nation’s toughest lead rules. They now require that all lead service lines be removed within 20 years. They also require an official state threshold indicating how much lead is acceptable in public drinking water, and establish stringent sampling rules meant to offer more accurate readings of lead levels. The new rules also ban partial lead service line removal.

According to DEQ officials, the new, stricter sampling methods will likely mean that the state will find more communities where lead levels in the water exceed the official threshold.

“We firmly believe it’s going to be higher,” Eric Oswald, director of drinking water and municipal assistance division for the DEQ, told state lawmakers Thursday.

The DEQ will become the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, or EGLE, on Monday.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Oswald said the anticipated discovery is “not because the water’s any worse, but because we’re sampling at the highest risk locations.”

The department’s “extremely rough estimate” is that more than 500,000 lead service lines still exist across the state, Oswald said.

Aaron Keatley, DEQ chief deputy director, also testified in the House panel. Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Keatley said the discovery is a step in the right direction.

“And it’s really weird, because it’s odd to say more detections is actually good news,” he said. “But keep in mind, water quality isn’t changing. What we’re doing is we’re changing how soon we find out about a problem and where we’re looking.”

Prior to the new lead rule, environmental regulators who collect water samples were allowed to run the tap water first at collection sites, in order to “flush out” the system before taking a sample. But that can lead to underestimating lead levels, DEQ officials say.

Workers repairing lead pipes in Flint
City of Flint, Michigan workers prepare to replace a lead water service line pipe under the Mayor’s Fast Start program, on March 4, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. | Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Keatley said the goal of the new lead rules is to “eliminate all potential sources of lead” in drinking water.

Under the new rule, communities should remove lead service lines at a rate of 5 percent per year starting in 2021. Along with the new sampling requirements, the state also reduced the acceptable level of lead in drinking water from 15 to 12 parts per billion, starting in 2025.

State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) pushed for even stricter rules in the wake of the Flint water crisis. He said then that he wanted the Legislature to enact the regulations so that they couldn’t be overturned by the next governor.

But he still said he supported Snyder’s rule. At the time, he called it “a step in the right direction.”

In a recent interview with the Michigan Advance, however, Ananich called the rule “a PR stunt” and said “it was never about actually dealing with or addressing the lead issues we have in our state.”

Sen. Jim Ananich
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich speaking at Lansing Community College, April 18, 2019 | Gov. Whitmer photo

In a follow up statement his office sent to the Advance, Ananich said, “There is no safe amount of lead in water, so when Gov. Snyder lowered the level by just three parts per billion, we knew he wasn’t serious about a solution. That was a slap in the face to the people of my city. I have introduced legislation that would meaningfully reduce the lead action level with a goal of reaching zero ppb. I will not entertain any plan that doesn’t include a goal of reaching zero.”

Ananich introduced legislation in 2016 and 2017 that would lower the lead threshold of 15 ppb to 10 ppb. It would have cut it to 5 ppb by 2021 and urged, with no deadline, that “the department … make every effort to achieve an action level goal for lead in drinking water of zero parts per billion.”

Snyder’s original proposal would have lowered the level to 10 ppb.

The state’s largest public water utilities have sued Michigan over the rule, arguing that it’s arbitrary and prohibitively expensive.

Their case is ongoing in the Michigan Court of Claims. Court records show that last week Judge Christopher Murray approved an order to admit two out-of-state attorneys to the case.

Drinking water station | Susan J. Demas

In her fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has recommended spending $120 million on new drinking water protections, including giving money to communities to help them comply with the new, Lead and Copper Rule.

That includes $1.9 million in drinking water grants to help improve local water systems, and $60 million to install filtered water stations at K-12 school buildings after state officials found unsafe lead levels in older buildings.

DEQ’s Keatley said that despite the lawsuit, public utility officials are still meeting with DEQ staff to talk about how to comply with the new rule.

“We met with some of the utilities just this week and everybody around the table shares the same goals,” he said. “We need to eliminate the sources of problems, so we’re having good dialog on that right now to figure out what is our path forward. But everybody shares the same objective.”

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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