Stricter rules confirm lead in water in Metro Detroit communities

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Royal Oak  — Gina Ashton doesn't yet know if her home built in 1924 has a lead pipe that delivers her drinking water, but she isn't taking any chances with a two-year-old son.

So when Royal Oak officials last week provided free filters in her suburban city, getting one "was kind of a no-brainer for us."

"No amount of lead is safe," said Ashton, 36. "What I know as an early childhood specialist, I know that when it comes to children specifically under the age of three, and any young children and very specifically pregnant women, that any amount of lead exposure can be dangerous."

With her son, Sterling Ashton, 2, Gina Ashton, 36, of Royal Oak signs up for a water filter pitcher with Oakland County health officer Leigh-Anne Stafford, right, at the Leo Mahany/Harold Meininger Senior Community Center in Royal Oak.

Royal Oak is one of at least 12 Metro Detroit communities that had lead levels exceeding the federal action level of 15 parts per billion in portions of their water sampling. The new results have been received with concern by residents about the safety of their drinking water and caution by city officials, who stress it's not exactly a repeat of the Flint water crisis.

There are more than 114 public water systems in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties alone, and the state still has not yet reported their lead-in-water results.

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

The latest results confirm what researchers have long suspected — lead "is actually in the water, and that means that people are drinking it," said Elin Betanzo, a water quality engineer and lead specialist who helped discover the Flint water crisis.

Even though communities haven't changed the source or their treatment of the water like Flint did, she said, "it means that we still have a risk of drinking lead in the water because there's lead in the plumbing."

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 some communities have downplayed the lead results. After Huntington Woods found elevated levels of lead in two of 20 homes sampled, city officials released a letter to residents that the results "may give the appearance that the city's water supply is not safe. THIS ISN'T THE CASE. Rather, the water within two homes with lead service lines that carry water into the home had slightly elevated results, not the entire water supply."

Health education intern Caitlyn Toth, right, and public health educator Daniel McIntyre talk with Royal Oak resident Gretchen Smith, left, while distributing information about lead exposure at the Leo Mahany/Harold Meininger Senior Community Center in Royal Oak.

Such public notices are "confusing" because they could give the wrong impression that there is no problem, Betanzo said.

"The reason we sample in homes is to get an idea of the range of lead that's out there in the homes," said Betanzo, who once worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and now runs her own Royal Oak-based firm. "It's an indicator of lead in the water across the entire community. It was never intended to represent the lead in a single home."

What led to the lead?

The lead exceedances are resulting from stricter water sampling methods set in motion by former Gov. Rick Snyder and were prompted by the Flint lead-contaminated water catastrophe that led to criminal charges and national headlines.

As part of the changes, 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 first round of testing recently ended in September with results being made public gradually by the state beginning last month.

Water systems with lead levels exceeding 15 ppb are supposed to replace lead service lines at a rate of at least 7% per year, giving utilities 15 years to fully replace the lines under current federal rules.

The Trump administration's EPA has proposed relaxing the requirement to 3% of service lines per year, which would extend the timeline for replacement to 33 years. The proposal has been criticized by environmental groups as a step backward for public health.

With her daughter, Grace Novak, 20, Chrissy Novak, 53, left, of Royal Oak picks up a water filter from Oakland County health officer Leigh-Anne Stafford, right, at the Leo Mahany/Harold Meininger Senior Community Center.

Lead service lines and lead solder was outlawed in 1986.

The EPA wants to keep its lead action level the same at 15 ppb, but Michigan is set to have the nation's most stringent lead rule starting in 2025, when the action level lowers to 12 parts per billion. Under new state rules, communities have until 2041 to replace all lead service lines — replacing all lead lines at a rate of 5% a year over 20 years. If they exceed the action level, communities must increase it to 7 percent a year.

The excess levels of lead reported in various Michigan communities "means that a significant portion of the population in that town is getting too much lead in their drinking water," said Erik Olson, a drinking water expert with the National Resources Defense Council.

"We're very concerned when we hear about high lead levels in some of these communities because it's often the kids, the infants and the pregnant moms who are at risk and frequently they are not in a position to protect themselves," said Olson, who works at the Washington, D.C.-based environmental group.

Many water systems have "provided false reassurances that their water is totally safe and people should not worry," he said, but such statements are foolhardy since all expert opinions say any level of lead isn't safe in drinking water.

The administrative rules were unsuccessfully legally challenged by Detroit, Livonia, the region's Great Lakes Water Authority and the Oakland County Water Resources commissioner, who argued the regulations imposed unnecessary costs and will cause public money to replace private lead service lines. The lawsuit is unlikely to be appealed or refiled, said Jim Nash, the Oakland County water resources commissioner.

Lead in water is a problem and lead service lines need to be removed, he said, but the cost to taxpayers of removing them is his main issue. 

"Detroit has an estimated 125,000 lead lines, so its estimated cost for replacing them is $625 million," Nash said. "That's going to be paid for by the ratepayers because the new rules says that all of this has to be paid for by the utilities who charge the ratepayers. Already in Detroit there's significant issues with affordability."

The state is being asked to help the poor "pay for this instead of just raising their rates," he said, adding that Pontiac, which is under his jurisdiction, "could see rates over $1,000 a year for water."

The state rules also require water suppliers to create an inventory of all service lines, tell residents if they have a lead service line and must notify residents within 30 days if they live in a house with a lead service line.

Many municipalities have been slow to ascertain the specific number of lead services lines in their water systems. Under the 2018 rule changes, public water systems have until Jan. 1 to submit a preliminary inventory of lead service lines "based on a thorough assessment of existing sources of information," Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy spokesman Scott Dean said. 

A final inventory, including a description of how a community verified the accuracy of its numbers, is due by January 2025 and must be updated every five years, Dean said.

How cities are reacting

Local communities are dealing with the fallout from the first wave of rule changes. Birmingham found five of 32 targeted sites exceeded the lead action level.

More aggressive state testing is prompting more elevated levels of lead in homes "and that's a good thing for the state," said Birmingham City Manager Joseph Valentine.

"The thing we have to be careful of is not to provide panic within the state that the water quality has changed but rather to educate the public that the state as a whole has taken a more proactive approach" to ensure lead is addressed, Valentine said.

Michigan rules will help heighten public awareness that communities across the country have not been doing a good job of measuring lead in the drinking water "because the federal lead and copper rule is really weak," Betanzo said.

Information about lead is distributed at the Leo Mahany/Harold Meininger Senior Community Center in Royal Oak on Oct. 30.

She hopes that communities do a better job of explaining to residents that "lead is present in all of our plumbing and that people can be drinking it in their homes. And the lead is not limited to those few homes that are above the lead action level."

Garden City found that more than a quarter, or eight of 31 sites with "known" lead water service lines" had lead levels exceeding 15 ppb during samples taken in August and September. The Wayne County community isn't waiting to replace the lead lines with the gradual approach allowed by state and federal rules, City Manager Dale Dougherty said.

There are 87 lead lines that city officials have discovered and more are expected but they will all get replaced, he said. 

"By the time we get done in the next two months, we should have 100% (replaced) pipes, and if a few show up, we'll fix those," Dougherty said.

But he was irked at the state's requirement to warn all the city's residents in three days about elevated levels in eight homes.

"We've got to tell thousands of people that eight houses have an issue when we already can show you that ... we are going forward with replacing all the pipes that we know of," Dougherty said. "Why are we scaring 12,000 people because eight homes have a slightly elevated level just because the test is tougher?"

Joe Mercurio, 58, lives in a Birmingham home built in 1928 that has a lead service line. The water had traces of lead but far below the 15 ppb threshold.

Birmingham has done "a reasonable job with this difficult situation.I feel fine about our personal situation," said Mercurio, who had installed a carbon filter six years ago on his water line and another one this summer.

He expects his lead line will be replaced in the next five years, "so we're just going to wait it out." 

"I believe it's the responsible action for any homeowner anywhere to have a filter because they're a good safety measure, just like wearing seat belts in your car," he said. "Just in case there's lead solder and it gets into the water."

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