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State regulators close lead testing loopholes, but transparency more controversial

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

Because of the Flint water crisis, the U.S. EPA wants more transparency about where the nation’s lead lines are. Specifically, the EPA wants to know how many lead service lines there still are underground, and they want to know exactly where they are. As we reported Tuesday, many Michigan cities do not know this basic information, it’s not just Flint.

The EPA also wants water systems to post the results from water tests to prove cities are in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule.

This week, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality gave the feds an update on these requests.

In a letter to the EPA, MDEQ officials say they’re closing some well-known loopholes in the way many Michigan cities test for lead. Specifically, they’re recommending cities use large-mouthed water bottles to collect water samples and they’re getting rid of a recommendation to flush water lines for a few minutes before it sits overnight for sampling the next morning.

They’re hiring a corrosion control treatment specialist, to help communities who need technical expertise. MDEQ is also asking cities to prove they’re testing at the homes they’re supposed to; these are typically homes with lead service lines or lead solder.

Before the Flint water crisis, MDEQ used to just trust cities when they said they’re testing the highest risk homes. That came back to haunt them in Flint, because the city was not testing the right homes.

The EPA’s request for increased transparency for the public is proving to be more “controversial.”

The EPA maintains cities should already know where and how many lead lines they have. But the agency’s request goes further than that. The EPA would love to see cities post this information online: how many lead lines there are in a city, a map of where they are, even the results from those individual high risk homes where testing is done once every few years.

MDEQ says it is already hard for cities to get enough people living in these higher risk homes to do this testing. There’s no forcing them. These people volunteer. MDEQ says that posting the test results from those homes online, in such a public way, “may result in further difficulty getting residents to participate in the sampling.”

The state isn’t the only one concerned about people’s privacy. Many water system operators we’ve talked to over the past few weeks said the same thing.

Jeff Castro, the director of Ypsilanti Community Utilities Authority, brought this up. He says residents should be able to find the make up of their own service line. But in Ypsilanti, there are only about three dozen lead lines left.

“I feel pretty strongly that that’s information for our customers only. I don’t think there’s any need to apply three dozen customers online so 25,000 other customers can see where they don’t want their children to play at or a house they don’t want to buy,” Castro said.

Castro says if they had way more lead lines or none at all he’d be more comfortable putting this information on the web, because it wouldn’t single certain homes out as badly. If the EPA mandates that the information be posted, he’d comply. But for now, that’s not something he’s willing to do.

Privacy isn’t the only concern. Some people were worried about security; there was talk of potential terrorists using water system maps to do harm. Others were worried about property values. One guy worried that someone could make a quick buck if they had a list of homes with lead service lines and went around scaring them into spending thousands of dollars to replace the line.

Still, others aren’t that worried at all.

Art Krueger supervises Traverse City’s water treatment plant. He says they already have a digital map of their water system (to his knowledge, Traverse City doesn't have any lead service lines on city property - although there could be some on private property). He says it wouldn’t be that hard for them to post the information online. He understands some people might have privacy concerns, but he says you could get ahold of the lead test results if you filed a public records request.

“It’s public information likely anyway. If someone wanted to really find out what addresses we were testing, correspondence is going back and forth to the DEQ; they could probably get a copy of those addresses.”

Regulators and operators are trying to hash out a middle ground where there's increased transparency without compromising too much privacy. That said, this business of posting information online, this is all a request from EPA. It is not a mandate. Changes in federal law are coming next year, but it’s not clear this increased transparency will be a part of that.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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