Snyder proposes tougher regulations for lead in water

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Flint — Michigan water utilities would be required to test annually for lead and copper in all schools, day care centers, nursing homes and government meeting facilities under new rules Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration proposed Friday in response to Flint’s lead contamination crisis.

Snyder’s proposed regulations would lower the threshold for taking action when lead exceeds 10 parts per billion in drinking water by 2020, adopting the World Health Organization’s standard. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires action when lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion.

The proposal appears to be “the lowest state standard in the country,” said Doug Farquhar, program director for environmental health at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Snyder administration also wants to require every public water system in Michigan to replace all lead service lines within 10 years, with some exceptions.

“The federal law is dumb and dangerous and the point is to set a higher standard faster,” Snyder said Friday at a meeting in Flint.

Mike Zimmer, Snyder’s cabinet director, said Friday that the lower threshold is being adopted at the urging of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who discovered high lead levels in the blood of Flint children last year.

Snyder and Zimmer detailed the sweeping reforms during a Friday meeting of the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, a group of government and health officials that meets weekly to coordinate recovery efforts from Flint’s emergency.

One Flint official said Friday the lower lead threshold doesn’t go far enough.

“We are ‘Pure Michigan’ and there are studies that suggest it should be less than 5 parts per billion,” said Michael C.H. McDaniel, a retired National Guard brigadier general who is running Flint Mayor Karen Weaver’s lead pipe removal program. “If we’re going to be cutting edge, lead the nation, I think we should go to 5 parts per billion.”

But the national Clean Water Action group welcomed the plan.

“The Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee’s recommendations are bold and would make Michigan a national leader in reducing lead exposure at the tap and protecting public health,” Clean Water Action spokesman Michael Kelly said. “We look forward to working in Michigan and nationwide to put drinking water first — making drinking water protection, treatment and distribution a number one concern of government at all levels.”

The governor’s plan calls for:

■ Public alerts to schools, community centers and day cares when lead levels in the building’s water exceed the 10 parts per billion threshold.

■ Water utility systems would have to inform customers of high lead levels within two days of testing, instead of 30 days. The state would provide blood tests for residents in homes with lead levels in the water exceeding 40 parts per billion.

■ Mandatory disclosure that a home contains a lead water service line in housing sales and rental contracts.

■ Implement new fines for violation of the state’s lead and copper regulation rules.

Flint, an impoverished city of nearly 100,000 residents, is under a three-month-long state of emergency. Residents have been urged to use faucet filters or bottled water until damaged pipes are effectively re-coated with anti-corrosion chemicals that were not used for 18 months after Flint temporarily switched water sources to the local river in 2014 while under state financial management.

“We gathered the right group of experts to come up with a solution that we need for Michigan but that can be translated nationwide,” said Zimmer, a panel member who helped devise the proposed changes with a work group that includes water experts such as Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards.

Zimmer cited a recent Associated Press analysis of EPA data that found that nearly 1,400 water systems serving 3.6 million Americans exceeded the federal lead standard at least once from January 2013 through September 2015. Just a fraction of schools and day care centers nationwide are required to check for lead because most receive their water from municipal systems that test at other locations.

The tougher regulations come on the heels of new tests showing dangerously high lead levels in 15 Detroit Public Schools buildings, including one where a drinking fountain recorded lead with 1,500 parts per billion — 100 times the allowable limit.

A key goal is to make Michigan’s lead and copper rule “citizen-centric,” Zimmer said, by implementing more stringent, broader notification requirements, requiring public education campaigns and forming state and local advisory commissions to give the public a say in water protection.

“We need to move forward with these reforms so we can better protect the health and safety of all Michiganders,” Snyder said in a written statement. “These new standards could be used as a model for other states to follow and to prevent additional water crises.”

Larger utilities now above the federal lead limit must take further steps to “optimize” their corrosion control treatment to prevent lead from leaching into the water like it did in Flint.

The proposal would require each system to fully replace old pipes within 10 years unless the state authorizes more time. Partial replacement of a line — which can occur when a utility owns a portion near the street while the rest is the homeowner’s responsibility — would be prohibited. Researchers have found that removing just part of a line can actually make lead exposure worse.

The Snyder administration is still studying which proposals it could implement single-handedly and which would need legislative approval.

It is unclear how much the proposal will cost. Snyder aides said the policy work group purposely did not take funding into account.

“We recognize there will be cost implications,” Zimmer told the Associated Press. “But again, our charge was to come up with the strongest, most effective (lead and copper rule) to further the national model. … I did not want to opt into this with a checkbook on every proposal. At some point you’re talking about health.”

The governor in February asked lawmakers for $25 million to replace Flint’s service pipes and an additional $165 million for statewide infrastructure improvements, at least a portion of which could upgrade lead lines elsewhere.


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Associated Press contributed.