Detroit's lead results meet standards but city wants aid to replace pipes

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit officials touted Tuesday that sampling found the city's water didn't exceed the federal and state standards for lead but acknowledged the city won't be able to meet a 21-year deadline to replace every lead line without state financial assistance.

Fifty-four homes had lead results below the action level of 15 parts per billion, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department reported at a Tuesday board meeting, while one home tested above it at 114 ppb.

A section of lead pipe that was removed by crews replacing lead-tainted service lines at homes on the 1200 block of Durand in Flint, August 31, 2016.

Even though the city has a greater concentration of lead water service lines than other communities, its water sampling results were better than most Michigan municipalities in the wake of the state's more stringent water sampling requirements. 

The action level exceedances have ranged in Metro Detroit from parts of Garden City and Oak Park to Royal Oak, Birmingham and White Lake Township. Some cities have given out filters to certain qualifying residents to deal with the potential public health issue. 

Detroit Water and Sewerage Director Gary Brown said he wasn't surprised by the results "because we went out a year ahead of time and tested twice as many homes as is required." The city came in with one of the lowest action levels in the country, he claimed.

"Once the state changed the procedures in testing, ... we knew we would elevate but we also knew that we should stay under the actionable level," Brown said. "We're happy to announce that we are below the actionable level, and there are still things that can be done to even bring it down lower."

No level of lead in water is safe, public health experts say. Children exposed to lead can suffer damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, as well as hearing and speech problems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the looming problem for Detroit is the state's new requirement that all lead lines be replaced by Jan. 1, 2041 — replacing them at a rate of 5% a year. Communities that exceed the action level are required under state and federal rules to replace 7% of lead lines a year.

Meeting Michigan's 2041 deadline will be arduous and will require a state bailout because of the city's high concentration of poor residents, Brown made clear.

"We can't meet it without additional funding," he said. "I cannot pass this cost on to a customer base that 50% of which is 150% below the poverty level. We can't pass this kind of cost on in rates."

The challenges go beyond replacing all of the estimated 120,000 lead service lines, Brown said.  

The cost for Detroit would be more than $450 million and as high as $650 million depending on how many lines are found, city officials said. The estimated amount is "more than most of the eastern portion of this country combined" built prior to 1945, Brown said.

Detroit water and sewerage officials said they are negotiating with the Whitmer administration for state funding to defray costs. 

The state Legislature gave $195 million to help Detroit exit its bankruptcy in 2014. Two years later, it gave another $617 million to pay off the Detroit school district's operating debt and provide start-up funding for a new debt-free district.

The lead exceedances found in other communities result from stricter water sampling methods approved by former Gov. Rick Snyder and were prompted by the Flint lead-contaminated water catastrophe that exposed a city to lead and other health-related issues.

Communities are expected to test more homes with lead service lines. They also not only have to take samples from the first liter of water drawn from a selected home with interior or exterior lead plumbing, but also of the fifth liter of water.

The method is considered more precise, state environmental regulators said, and were expected to result in more findings of elevated lead levels.

The state's lead action level is set to become the nation's strictest at 12 ppb starting in 2025. 

It is "important to replace these lead lines," said Michael Einheuser, chairman of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department's board, who emphasized that Detroit isn't Flint and is being aggressive in keeping the public informed of its actions.

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