Hamtramck exceeds state's lead level for drinking water

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Hamtramck officials notified residents Wednesday that the city has exceeded state lead limits in its annual test of tap water, an issue the Wayne County city has struggled with over many years.

In a letter to residents, city officials said that the city's water supply has tested at 17 parts per billion, which is slightly higher than the action level of 15 ppb as part of the state and federal lead and copper rules. At least 42 homes were sampled, they said.

"The goal for lead in drinking water is 0 ppb. There is no safe level of lead in the blood," the letter from Hamtramck officials stated.

Children's exposure to lead "can seriously harm a child’s health" and cause problems such as damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, and learning and behavior problems, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adults can suffer health problems as well.

The annual testing of homes with lead service lines is required by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

"Lead release in drinking water can be sporadic, and we see that in Hamtramck where they've had lead action level exceedances on and off over the history of the lead and copper rule," said Elin Betanzo, a Metro Detroit water quality specialist who helped discover the Flint water crisis. "This is why getting the lead service lines out is so critical to public health protection."

Betanzo said this is Hamtramck's 11th lead violation in 30 years, according to the data she's collected.

Michigan EGLE evaluates compliance with drinking water laws based on the 90th percentile of lead and copper results collected in each round of sampling. 

The lead exceedance will now trigger increased testing to measure lead levels every six months similar to what has happened in Benton Harbor, the southwest Michigan city of 9,615 residents that has had three straight years lead level exceedances, prompting a heavy state response in the past three weeks and the city's declaration of a state of emergency this week.

Hamtramck said it is partnering with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to dole out one free water filter with replacement cartridges to residents on Thursday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. in the Hamtramck Town Center parking lot at 9521 Joseph Campau.

In 2019, Hamtramck began a lead service line replacement program and expects to have over 300 lead service lines replaced by December.

There are around 5,900 lead lines in the city that have been in the ground for many decades, Hamtramck City Manager Kathleen Angerer said Wednesday.

Because of the lead exceedance, EGLE has told the city that officials have 14 years to get the lead lines out instead of 20 years, Angerer said. And that will be a challenge without funds from the state or federal government, she said.

“Quite frankly, we want our residents to have safe drinking water,” Angerer said. “We 100% agree that our residents deserve that and expect it. We take this very seriously.”

The city's drinking water comes from the Great Lakes Water Authority, where there is no exceedance until the water passes through the lead lines and fixtures inside of homes where it becomes tainted with lead, she said.

“It’s the lead services lines and that replacement of those services lines is key to having safe drinking water in all of our homes,” Angerer said. “That’s why we’re calling on elected officials, the governor, the Michigan Legislature, our members of Congress, our county officials to work toward a solution to provide funding so communities like Hamtramck and others throughout the state, older communities, can have an expedited service line replacement much like Benton Harbor.”

The recently signed state budget set aside $10 million for the replacement of lead service lines in Benton Harbor. The Whitmer administration pledged last week to find additional millions of dollars to ensure all lead pipes are replaced in the next 18 months.