GOP leaders oppose Snyder’s lead water rule

Jonathan Oosting, and Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Republican legislative leaders are questioning and criticizing GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to implement the nation’s toughest lead safety standards in response to the Flint water crisis, setting up a potential showdown during the rule-making process.

Snyder announced the long-awaited water safety plan last week, saying he would seek to lower the “dangerous and dumb” federal limit for lead levels in water from 15 parts per billion to a state standard of 10 ppb through an administrative rule rather than legislation.

The governor’s plan to bypass the Legislature suggested a lack of support at the Capitol, which Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof confirmed Thursday, telling reporters his Republican caucus opposes lowering the lead threshold.

“Fifteen parts per billion is a pretty good standard. They just didn’t do things well in the testing or all the other things (in Flint),” said Meekhof, R-West Olive.

“Lowering it actually potentially challenges a lot of community water systems with having to change at a very, very large expense. That’s where we’re having the rub right now.”

As The Detroit News reported Tuesday, more than three dozen water systems serving nearly 380,000 Michigan residents would fail to meet the governor’s new standard if it were in place today.

Systems in Monroe, Bay City, Benton Harbor, Holland Township and other communities are in compliance with federal rules but had lead levels exceeding Snyder’s 10 ppb limit in their most recent monitoring periods.

Search this online database for the latest lead testing results in your area.

Public health experts say exposure to any level of lead can be problematic, especially for children with developing brains. Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who helped expose dangerously high levels of the toxin in Flint’s water, last week praised the governor’s proposal.

“We need to make sure no community has any lead in their water,” said Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, who represents a city that became the national poster child for lead contamination after a switch to harsh river water damaged aging pipes.

“We’re talking about people’s schools, people’s day care centers, people’s homes. What the governor is proposing is a way to protect people, and I think everyone should be on board.”

But House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, joined Meekhof Thursday in raising concerns.

“I would say for me personally, I want to ensure that if we do this it does not severely burden our local units of government by costing them too much money,” Leonard said.

“But secondly, I want to ensure that there’s scientific proof that this actually leads to a healthier water. I don’t want to do something just for the sake of doing it if it’s going to put a burden on our local units of government.”

Leonard said he is in discussion with Snyder.

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler confirmed the governor is working with legislators to try to address their concerns. He said the administration is also reaching out to local water officials to design a rule that fits their needs.

“We need to know what the communities need in terms of the help,” Adler said. “Is it a matter of phasing it in, or do they not have the resources for it? But saying it’s going to be a burden to protect people doesn’t mean you shouldn’t protect them.”

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is working to draft the rule language ahead of introduction and a required public hearing. While implementation would not require legislative approval, legislators on the Joint Committee for Administrative Rules could object and pursue an alternative.

“There’s a lot of speculation,” Meekhof said, declining to tell reporters whether he would support an effort to block Snyder’s rule. “That’s up to the JCAR group, and they’ll tackle that when the time comes.”

The House Oversight Committee on Thursday advanced legislation that would prohibit state agencies from adopting new rules that are more stringent than federally mandated versions — unless they can present a “preponderance of evidence” to support a stronger standard.

Rep. Triston Cole introduced similar legislation last session, prior to Snyder’s proposed lead limit, and his proposal would not necessarily block the governor’s rule.

“There will be circumstances where there will be exceptions to that, and we took that into account with the legislation,” said Cole, R-Mancelona. “Yes, I believe there’s a pathway for that to happen.”

Ananich has proposed legislation that would lower the current 15 ppb limit for lead in water to 5 ppb by 2021, but he called Snyder’s proposal “a good start” and said he’ll work to educate his colleagues about what he considers an important public health effort.

Communities may need help improving their water systems to comply with the tougher rule, he said, but costs should not be the only factor.

“Think about the costs to those human beings that are drinking lead-laced water,” Ananich said. “I think that should be our main focus.”