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In this series, Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith looks at how the Flint water crisis has affected, or could affect, other water systems in Michigan - especially those with lead water service lines. It also considers how potential changes to lead in water rules at the federal, and especially the state level, will impact water systems. Scroll below to see the entire series of reports.

Kalamazoo officials improve city's lead testing, results are better than before

Kalamazoo's John Slack identifies Amy Emmons lead service line in her basement.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Kalamazoo's John Slack identifies Amy Emmons' lead service line in her basement.

New test results show lead levels in Kalamazoo’s water system have dropped.

The federal limit for lead in water is 15 parts per billion. Last time the city tested, in 2014, Kalamazoo’s lead level was 13 parts per billion. Now it's down to 4 ppb.

13 ppb was close enough to worry Shannan Deater, Kalamazoo’s Environmental Services Programs Manager. She says some of the higher lead results in 2014 weren’t really a good, representative sample. 

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show one high sample in 2014 was taken from a vacant home on East Alcott St., for example. The longer water sits, the more lead can leach into it.

After the first result came back at 22 ppb, the city re-sampled the home twice - one sample came back at 298 ppb and a second at 57 ppb. In this instance, the state included all three samples from this home in Kalamazoo's overall lead level calculation. Records show the city replaced the lead service line and the home was sold.

This year, the city only had four results higher than 15 ppb. The highest was 48 ppb. But after five minutes of flushing, lead levels at all four homes got down to one ppb or less.

“Everything starts with a good sample. If you don’t have a good sample, you can’t base a lot of decisions on the results," Deater said.

How Kalamazoo improved its lead testing

  1. Nearly tripled the number of homes it typically tests; from about 50 to 148
  2. Verified that homes sampled qualified as a home at higher risk of lead in water
  3. Dropped a controversial sampling practice
  4. Sent a trained city employee to take samples, instead of the person living at the home

In the wake of Flint’s water crisis, Shannan Deater says Kalamazoo decided to test over the summer of 2016, one year ahead of schedule. Plus they made changes in how they test to make sure they were getting good, reliable samples.
The first change: they sent John Slack to do the tests for them.

“It’s a lot easier for us to do it and we get a truer sample this way,” says Slack.

Slack works for the city’s water department.

Usually regular people do these water tests in their homes. That’s mainly because the water has to sit for at least six hours before it goes into a sample bottle. These customer-submitted tests are what regulators use to measure if a city’s water is safe overall.

Slack’s truck winds through the dark, mostly empty streets. Shortly before 6 a.m., he pulls up to a home just outside the city in Kalamazoo Township. Kalamazoo serves 10 neighboring communities, making it one of the largest water systems in Michigan.

Amy Emmons greets him at the door with her cup of coffee and fuzzy pink slippers.

“I think before Flint, it wasn’t as huge of a thing in your mind that, 'Hey this is something to worry about,' but with the whole disaster in Flint you go, ‘oh yeah, I guess that is pretty serious," Emmons said.

Emmons says she asked for the water test after the city put an orange flyer on her door notifying her that she might have a lead service line and that the city would test for free.

After Slack collects the water sample, he and Emmons head down into the basement to check it out. It takes Slack about two seconds to call it.

“I can see lead right here. That’s a lead ball, so it’s a good thing we’re here and testing that," he said.

There are roughly 2,900 lead service lines left in Kalamazoo. But there are about 8,900 homes with service lines that are “unidentified.”

See how many estimated lead service lines remain in Michigan cities

Since Flint’s water crisis, Kalamazoo has been sending John Slack into hundreds of basements all over the city to set those records straight.

Because Slack is a knowledgeable city employee, who’s both testing the water and confirming the city is testing in homes with lead service lines, the city is super confident in the results.

Amy Emmons is relieved her results show lead levels at three parts per billion. After letting the water run for five minutes, the level went down to one ppb.

“So it’s not nearly as high as it could be, it’s not in the danger zone,” she said.

Kalamazoo will replace Emmons’ lead line, eventually, for free. Now she’s encouraging her neighbors to have their water tested too.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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