Democrats, Flint pediatrician push U.S. EPA to adopt Michigan water rules

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Michigan Democrats and a prominent Flint pediatrician plan Tuesday on urging Congress and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen the nation's lead and copper rule for drinking water and make it similar to the state's stringent standards.

Among those who will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician whose research helped expose the Flint water crisis. She will push lawmakers to take heed of what Michigan has done.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, is on the committee and has been an outspoken proponent of learning lessons from Flint's lead-contaminated water crisis. Michigan Republican U.S. Reps. Fred Upton of St. Joseph and Tim Walberg of Tipton also serve on the committee.

Hanna-Attisha will tell the committee in her speech that the EPA's proposed revisions to the lead and copper rule "are minimalistic and insufficient."

"For the past four years, I have urged the EPA to rethink, modernize, strengthen and simplify the lead and copper rule," according to her speech obtained by The Detroit News. "The current LCR revisions take a small step in the right direction but fail to change the rule's underlying structural problem. It does not reflect the science of lead exposure which tells us there is no safe level."

The EPA wants to keep its lead action level at 15 parts per billion, 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% a year.

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.

The Michigan Senate Democrats have also sent a letter to David Ross, the assistant administrator of the EPA, complaining the "EPA's Lead and Copper Rule is not sufficient for protecting our communities from exposure to lead in drinking water." The Michigan Senate is controlled by Republicans, who initially opposed Snyder's proposal and forced the governor to impose his standards through an administrative rule-making process.

Hanna-Attisha will encourage Congress to lower the action level, mandate the removal of lead pipes and ban partial line replacements, bolster sampling to better detect lead in water and encourage more public education about the dangers.

In an interview, Hanna-Attisha said it has been "such a disappointment" to see proposed relaxed revisions of the federal lead and copper rule "and to see how they have missed their opportunity to finally take heed of what happened in Flint."

"The beauty of what happened in Flint is that we've been able to almost create a tsunami across the nation on the issue of drinking water safety, specifically lead and water," she said.

"Before Flint, people really didn't know ... how weak our regulations were and how as a nation we were never intended to get lead-free water.

Elin Betanzo, a water quality engineer and lead specialist who helped discover the Flint water crisis and contributed to the the state's lead and copper rule language, said the hearing is an opportunity to explain why the federal rule isn't sufficient.

'We've been waiting about 15 years for a revised lead and copper rule and the proposal they've put out has minimal improvement and in some cases even weakened protections under the federal lead and copper rule," said Betanzo, a former EPA water expert. 

Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, and Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, argued in the letter Congress and the EPA need to act now to protect the nation  and that Michigan changed its standards because of "weaknesses" in the federal rule.

"First and foremost, we know that the one provision that could have prevented the Flint water crisis would have been a requirement to complete a corrosion control study prior to implementation of any source water or treatment change at any regulated water system," the letter stated.

Hanna-Attisha said Michigan "decided to solve this problem or at least address this problem" because of federal inaction. The state is now "a model which exceeds federal standards and exceeds the revised standards and that is what is what I hope to also share."

(313) 222-2620