Whitmer: New rules could mean worse lead results in water testing

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rolled out a public information campaign in Lansing, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, to educate the public on new lead and copper rules that could result in higher test results in some homes.

The implementation of Michigan's toughest-in-the-nation lead and copper standards could lead to the appearance of elevated lead levels in drinking water in some communities. 

The first round of results from a new testing procedure, due July 10, will help the state prioritize communities for lead pipeline replacement and abatement, but also might lead to some false perceptions about worsening lead contamination, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday.

"There will be communities that will have questions and concerns, and I think it's important for us that the public understands that the existing water quality for residents won’t have changed, but our testing requirements will have,” Whitmer said.

The changes to Michigan’s Safe Drinking Water Act will be discussed at virtual town halls with the departments of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and Health and Human Services at 6 p.m. July 9, 10 and 11.

The state also will post all lead and copper data results and ways for residents to protect themselves from lead exposure on a new website, www.michigan.gov/mileadsafe, Whitmer said. 

Former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, created the new lead rules in response to the Flint water contamination crisis. They 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 locate, prioritize and replace all lead service lines by 2040.

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. Opponents have said 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.

Some communities have called the new lead rule an unfunded mandate that will cost more than $2 billion over the next two decades, even as cities, villages and townships struggle to fund a number of other local water infrastructure improvements.

Communities also are worried the rules would require them to use public money to finance replacements on private property, a potential violation of the state Constitution, said John LaMacchia, assistant director of state and federal affairs at the Michigan Municipal League. 

Complying with the rule "in a way that is both legal and doesn’t jeopardize other infrastructure needs" is of the utmost importance, LaMacchia said. 

As part of the new rule, the state is making changes to the testing procedure so samples are taken from the first and fifth liters of water taken from a faucet.

The second sampling will indicate the status of water further upstream, ensuring that water officials receive samples from not only internal plumbing but also from water sitting in service lines, according to the Michigan Environmental Council. 

The increased accuracy stemming from that procedure is "evidence of our strengthened protections working as intended and ensuring that our water systems and our state and local governments have the quality information needed to protect public health from lead in drinking water," said Charlotte Jameson of the Michigan Environmental Council.

Whitmer said the prolonged underfunding of critical infrastructure in Michigan has been ongoing for decades and “should not come to anyone as a surprise.”

But she acknowledged the impact of the new rules remains uncertain for local communities forced to remove 5 percent of their lead service lines every year for the next 20 years or the communities that identify elevated lead levels through the new testing requirements.

“That’s the great unknown is what we are going to be confronting in terms of how many communities … identify that this is an issue,” Whitmer said. “That’s why it was important for us to get out in front so that people understand this is happening, this testing is ongoing.”

The state will work with communities to “rapidly respond” to high lead levels, enforce measures to decrease the levels and support local public health agencies addressing health issues arising from lead contamination, the governor said.

The supplemental budget approved by lawmakers earlier this month includes $3 million to help residents and local communities prepare for the new lead rules. Whitmer’s budget for the next fiscal year includes $120 million for lead service line replacement and $60 million for hydration stations in schools.

The Michigan Senate, by contrast, proposed an additional $25 million for Lead and Copper Rule implementation in fiscal year 2020. The House did not include the funding in its budget.


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