Whitmer directs state agencies to prepare to use federal infrastructure funds

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday directed state government to work with the Michigan Legislature and prepare to launch lead service line replacement and other water projects when federal money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is dispersed. 

“Right now, we have an incredible opportunity to put Michiganders first by using the funds we will be getting under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to ensure every community has safe drinking water,” Whitmer said in a statement.

“With this Executive Directive, we are accelerating the timeline to replace 100% of lead service lines in Michigan, prioritizing communities that have been disproportionately impacted, fostering enhanced collaboration across departments, and ensuring that the projects are built by Michigan workers and businesses. I look forward to working with the Legislature to invest these dollars and get the job done.” 

New pipes are installed at a home along Ogden Avenue in Benton Harbor, Michigan, on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.

The order comes a week after President Joe Biden signed into law the largest investment in the nation's infrastructure in what he called a "once in a generation" investment.

The state is expected soon to receive its first allocations from the $1 trillion package. 

Michigan will receive at least $10 billion for its highways, bridges and more. An additional $1 billion is expected over five years to improve public transit and $1.3 billion to boost water infrastructure, including lead service line replacement, under traditional funding formulas. 

Whitmer's order Monday directs state departments to take actions including: 

• Prioritizing lead service line replacement for communities "disproportionately burdened by lead in their drinking water and communities that require financial or technical assistance to utilize water infrastructure dollars," state officials said.

• Finding ways to layer in flooding resiliency to water infrastructure.

• Working with community colleges, trade associations and unions to train new craftsmen to build infrastructure. 

“We appreciate Governor Whitmer’s leadership and determination to prioritize water-protection work in the Great Lake State with the new federal infrastructure funds. Michiganders' urgent water needs can’t wait,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW (For Love of Water).

“We must use this once-in-a-generation infrastructure investment to replace lead lines, modernize drinking water and sewage plants, and clean up PFAS contamination right away. This investment is essential to the public health and prosperity of families and communities, and will support good-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced.”  

Crews continue work on lead pipe replacement at a home along Ogden Avenue in Benton Harbor, Michigan, on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.

Whitmer's administration has faced criticism for issues such as the lead water levels in Benton Harbor.

The majority Black city of nearly 10,000 residents on the state's southwest side has seen three consecutive years of lead violations. In September, environmental groups and activists filed an emergency petition with the EPA asking for federal intervention aimed at pressuring the state to pass out bottled water and expedite the timeline to remove thousands of lead pipes.

Whitmer has called for replacing all the lead pipes in the city in the next 18 months.

State officials estimate the cost to replace all of the lines in Benton Harbor to be $30 million. So far, the state had allocated $18.6 million with $10 million in the recently signed 2022 budget as well as $3 million from the MI Clean Water plan. Another $5.6 million in water infrastructure grant money is from the Environmental Protection Agency.

On Monday, Whitmer's office said the federal funding would help requirements under the state Lead and Copper Rule, which requires every community to replace 5% of its lead service lines each year. Communities with an action level that exceeds what is allowed are required to replace their lead service lines at a rate of 7% per year, meaning 100% completion in under 15 years.  

"With additional federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan, Michigan will be able to speed up this timeline and fix and replace more water infrastructure, including lead pipes," state officials said.

The funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act also will be used in Hamtramck, where elevated lead levels also have been found in water testing samples.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence and other lawmakers highlighted plans for the federal funding during a press conference Monday in the Wayne County community.

“I remain deeply concerned about the elevated levels of lead found in Hamtramck’s recent water tests, and I continue to stand ready to provide assistance from the federal government,” she said in a statement. 

“A pothole is an inconvenience, but water is a necessity for life, which is why I fought hard to pass the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This transformative legislation is the largest investment in America since FDR’s New Deal, and it is investing more than $1 billion in Michigan to replace lead pipes and upgrade our water infrastructure. We’re going to ensure that no family in Hamtramck, or any community in the country, ever has to worry about the quality and safety of their drinking water ever again.”