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Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration is forging ahead with the nation’s toughest lead standard for drinking water and proposing new funding to help communities comply, but localities are still fighting the rule initiated by her predecessor.

The East Lansing Democrat is asking state lawmakers to approve $37.5 million in supplemental state funding to help replace underground lead service lines in areas with drinking water lead levels already at or approaching the new threshold.

“We’ve got to do everything we can to get service lines out of people’s homes,” said Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Liesl Clark. “It’s absolutely something we need to be spending time and attention on. You’ll see that commitment through the course of dollars and then also through the work that we’re doing.”

Former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, created the new lead rule in response to the Flint water contamination crisis. It will lower the state action level for lead to 12 parts per billion by 2025, down from the federal standard of 15 ppb. It also directs communities to replace all lead service lines by 2040.

Finalized last summer, the rule sparked backlash from local officials already struggling to fund water infrastructure improvements. They called it an unfunded mandate by the state.

A coalition of Detroit area water agencies sued Michigan in December and is seeking to invalidate the rule, arguing it could cost local governments $2.5 billion to replace both the public and private portions of lead service lines.

In its “haste to remedy its public image” damaged by the Flint crisis, the state “has gone about its lead regulation illegally and arbitrarily and placed impossible financial burdens and serious legal hurdles on water supplies, local governments, ratepayers, and taxpayers,” they argued in a February filing.

The coalition includes Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash, the Great Lakes Water Authority that serves most of Southeast Michigan, Mayor Mike Duggan’s Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the city of Livonia.

Nash told The Detroit News he's "all for" Whitmer's budget proposal, which would provide funding "for the folks that have the worst problem" with lead contamination, but the long-term price tag will be much larger. There are an estimated 500,000 lead services lines in Michigan that would eventually need to be replaced under the rule, and each could cost thousands of dollars, he said. 

“That can have a real impact on (customer) rates,” Nash said. “If we have a 15-20 percent rate increase for that, people are going to freak out.”

Nash said he's hoping to work with the Whitmer administration to change the rule, noting concerns about local governments ability to use public money to replace lines on private property. 

State defends lead rule

Whitmer has been clear that "fixing the state’s drinking water is a top priority," said spokeswoman Tiffany Brown. "Her budget reflects that commitment and her support for local communities" in meeting new requirements.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, represented by new Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office, is fighting to dismiss the suit over the state's new Lead and Copper Rule, arguing it would “turn back the clock on Michigan's lead in drinking water standards.”

The state enacted the rule to “protect the public by minimizing the potential for exposure to lead in drinking water” in response to the Flint water crisis and growing awareness about the impact of lead water infrastructure on public health, Assistant Attorney General Zachary Larsen said in a recent filing.

"The reforms, while significant, nonetheless provided water systems with flexibility in achieving the ultimate goal of eliminating public health threats from lead exposure,” he wrote.

Larsen noted local water systems would have at least 20 years to remove lead service lines, “and likely longer if they do so through an approved asset management plan” that takes into account other infrastructure priorities in coordination with the state.

In calling for a new state rule, Snyder repeatedly described the federal Lead and Copper Rule as “dumb and dangerous.”

It was last updated in 2007, and environmental experts argue it is outdated and fails to recognize that exposure to any level of lead can be dangerous, especially for young children whose brains are still developing.

How state aid would work

Whitmer is proposing $37 million in lead pipe replacement funding as part of a larger $120 million supplemental spending plan for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

The plan would also dedicate $40 million to help local communities qualify for federal Drinking Water Revolving Loan Funds, $30 million to abate and clean up emerging contaminants such as the "forever chemicals" known as PFAS and $5 million to research water system improvements, including improvements to corrosion control treatments that were not utilized in Flint.

Under the proposal, the state would provide grants of up to $2 million for lead service line replacement in communities where the 90th percentile for lead in drinking water systems tops 10 parts per billion.

More than 40 drinking water systems in Michigan — some large but many very small — had lead levels exceeding 10 ppb in their most recent round of testing reported to the state, according to DEQ data.

The systems serve residents in Hamtramck, Monroe, Marquette, Benton Harbor, Parchment, Greenville, Pennfield Township and Napoleon Township, along with several smaller systems, including some dedicated to specific apartment complexes.  

Local water supply advisory councils could also apply for grants of up to $25,000 for public awareness and education campaigns related to lead and other drinking water contaminates, with a maximum collective allocation of $1 million.

The pipe replacement funding would be one-time money, but Whitmer is also requesting $1.9 million to create a new drinking water compliance assistance unit in the environmental department that would provide technical expertise on implementation.

Rule cost pegged at $2B

Local governments expect a much larger price tag over the next two decades, likely north of $2 billion, said John LaMacchia of the Michigan Municipal League.

“We’re happy the governor is aware of this issue, since it happened under a previous administration and there’s a cost to that. But honestly for us as communities, there’s still a lot of questions to be answered.”

Among those questions, LaMacchia said, is legal uncertainty surrounding government removal of pipes on homeowners’ private property, “what the full cost is and how we pay for it.”

Beyond funding, the DEQ's Clark said the state is working with local governments to develop asset management plans and encourage them to “think about how does replacing the service lines fit into the overall work that they need to do from a drinking water compliance perspective.”

"Because everybody’s goal is the same, which is to get the best-quality drinking water into communities as possible,” she said.

Clark and DEQ Administration Deputy Director Amy Epkey outlined the budget proposal last week before a House appropriations subcommittee, but majority Republican lawmakers were not immediately ready to commit to the pipe replacement proposal.

“There’s a lot of funding going into that, and it’s something I want to look into further,” said Rep. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine, who chairs the budget subcommittee on Natural Resources and Environmental Quality.

Lawmakers have expressed concern over proposals in the past, arguing it would be unfair for the state to fund pipe replacement in some communities when others, such as the City of Lansing, have already used their own money to do the job. 

House appropriations members will work through the details of the governor’s supplemental budget in the coming weeks, said Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering.

“He wants to work with the governor on this and that’s a priority issue for him,” D’Assandro said, noting that the Legislature has been a leader in providing clean drinking water resources to Flint and other affected communities.

“Every time Gov. Snyder came up with a request for medical supplies, filters, testing for the children there, the Legislature responded in a matter of days,” D’Assandro said.

Senate Republicans have not yet weighed in on Whitmer’s plan.

“The caucus has yet to review the governor’s request,” said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

joosting@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jonathanoosting

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