Snyder to lower drinking water lead limits by 2020

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday unveiled his long-awaited plans for new water quality requirements that go beyond the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which he continues to call “dumb and dangerous.”

The seven-part initiative, inspired by the Flint water contamination crisis, calls for administrative rule changes to “phase in” a reduction in the amount of lead that is allowed in public water supplies before the state orders corrective steps.

The regulatory changes won’t require legislative approval but will have to work their way through an administrative rules process that includes public hearings and an opportunity for legislators to object and propose alternatives.

Current state and federal law requires action if lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion in 90th percentile testing. Snyder’s plan would lower Michigan’s threshold to 10 parts per billion by 2020, a goal he first announced in April 2016.

Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said the speed of the phased-in reduction is to be determined during the rule-drafting process.

Flint tested at 12 ppb lead during the second half of 2016, dropping below the federal action limit, and has shown continual improvement this year. The city had tested at 20 ppb during the first half of 2016.

Snyder’s office said other planned administrative rule changes would require most public water systems around the state to perform a full system inventory to identify underground lead service lines. They also would have to create Water System Advisory Councils to ensure community input.

“We need a Michigan rule that is smart and safe,” Snyder said in a statement, announcing the new rules via press release.

“We are taking action to provide safe and reliable drinking water infrastructure that will protect the health and well-being of all Michiganders. By implementing these smarter standards, Michigan communities can better safeguard residents from lead and our residents can be assured that they have access to safe, clean drinking water.”

Other parts of the governor’s plan also will require collaboration with the Michigan Legislature, which has approved more than $250 million in Flint-related aid but adopted only one substantive policy change since the crisis made national news in late 2015.

Snyder is calling for statutory changes to strengthen water testing sampling methods, and annual testing at state-licensed facilities like schools and nursing homes. Under his proposal, those facilities would also be required to use filters or disclose testing results on drinking fountains.

Other legislative proposals would prohibit partial replacement of lead service lines, and require landowners or property sellers to disclose any service lines or plumbing known to contain lead.

It’s not clear if Snyder is working with any legislators to introduce related bills, and his office did not immediately respond to a request for clarification. It’s also unclear why Snyder is seeking to lower the lead action level through an administrative rule change rather than legislation.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, introduced a bill in January that would lower the 15 ppb threshold to 10 ppb in 2018 and 5 ppb in 2021. It sets levels lower than the governor’s plan, which he called a “step in the right direction.”

“From the beginning, I’ve wanted to make sure our Lead and Copper Rule is strengthened,” Ananich said Thursday. “Obviously we need to have a goal of 0 ppb. We need to get rid of exposure to lead as much as possible.”

Ananich told The Detroit News he would prefer the state establish new lead rules by law rather than administrative rule, which he fears could be revisited by a future administration.

“I like to do things in statute, because then it takes more action to get rid of something,” he said.

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech University professor whose work helped expose the extent of the Flint water crisis at a time when the state was still downplaying it, has said that any level of lead in water can be cause for concern. But he welcomed Snyder’s new plan.

“These reforms will help make drinking water in the state of Michigan safer and cleaner for all residents,” Edwards said in a statement. “The reforms announced today should be used as a guide as other states look at ways to better protect public health.”

Snyder on Thursday also signed an executive order creating a new Child Lead Exposure Elimination Commission to build on the work of a board chaired by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.