Michigan recruiting experts to address lead in state's drinking water

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy on Friday said it is creating a panel of drinking water experts to give advice on how to reduce lead in water systems.

The selection of the panelists, who have yet to be named, comes as ELGE has been under fire for lead violations for three straight years in Benton Harbor in the southwest part of the state.

EGLE officials said they are also concerned with aging water infrastructure around the state including lead pipes that contribute to the contamination in drinking water.

Officials said the seven-member panel "will bolster EGLE’s ongoing effort to advise drinking water systems with aging lead service lines on effective corrosion control strategies," according to a news release.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy on Friday said it is creating a panel of drinking water experts to give advice on how to reduce lead in water systems. The announcement comes as ELGE has been under fire for lead violations for three straight years in Benton Harbor.

"Corrosion control is particularly important in many communities where older, outdated water treatment infrastructure creates challenges in keeping lead out of drinking water," said Liesl Clark, the director of EGLE. "Those older systems often serve communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, many of which are disproportionately impacted by health and environmental challenges. EGLE is already in action helping cities and towns across the state where lead levels exceed regulatory standards."

State officials said they want to select academic and water system engineering experts for the panel and will recruit experts both from within and outside Michigan.

EGLE this week began to provide bottled water to Benton Harbor residents in response to a scathing petition filed by environmental groups to the Environmental Protection Agency that criticized the state's response to keeping residents safe and implored the EPA to intervene to ensure the city has safe drinking water.

"This panel will be an added asset in ensuring the best water treatment programs are in place for communities while we move aggressively toward total replacement of these lead service lines," Clark added.

Nick Leonard, the executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center that was one of the petitioners of the EPA, called the panel "a step in the right direction."

"I don't know who's on the panel. That's a key question," he said. "But we've detailed extensively in the petition, we've obviously had disagreements with EGLE about their corrosion control determinations. We don't think it's limited to Benton Harbor. I think it's important for them to be taking a closer look at that issue throughout the state."

The panel will report to EGLE’s Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division which regulates 2,685 public drinking water systems under the state’s Lead and Copper Rule.

State officials say the panel would:

• Provide advice on strategies to ensure compliance with Lead and Copper Rule corrosion protection requirements at drinking water systems where corrosion protection is triggered, is not effective or needs to be optimized.

• Provide input into the selection and optimization of corrosion protection methods.

• Advise on interim actions that would be most effective to ensure public protection while corrosion protection is implemented.

• Recommend and assess corrosion control studies and evaluate corrosion protection effectiveness and identify metrics used to assess corrosion control effectiveness.

• Provide general guidance on implementing the Lead and Copper Rule, which requires sampling and implements timelines when an action level is exceeded.

EGLE has been fending off criticism by making a string of announcements to address lead. Officials announced last month the appointment of Kris Donaldson, a 17-year veteran of the division responsible for adhering to the state's Safe Drinking Water Act, as the new clean water public advocate. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also announced last month that she was seeking to invest $20 million into Benton Harbor to replace its lead pipes and improve its drinking water and do it in five years or less. The budget approved by the Legislature and signed by Whitmer for the fiscal year that began Friday included half of Whitmer's request for Benton Harbor, $10 million.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

Twitter:@leonardnfleming