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MDEQ makes case for strengthening lead in water rules after Flint crisis

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
A bucket of lead water pipe "goosenecks" in Muskegon, Michigan.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality is vowing to strengthen lead-in-water rules because of the Flint water crisis. At a public meeting in Lansing Wednesday night, state regulators said they cannot wait on the federal government to finish its own version of the new rules.

If adopted, the draft rules would be the toughest in the country. But they face an uphill battle in terms of costs and legal hurdles.

Special series: Ripple Effects of the Flint Water Crisis

MDEQ is expected to strengthen lead in water rules in a number of ways, including lowering the level of acceptable lead in a community’s tap water. The “action level” of 15 parts per billion of lead could drop to 10 parts per billion.

The most controversial change would be forcing cities to pay to replace lead water pipes over the next 20 years, even if they’re on private property and even if water samples don’t show elevated lead levels.

If her water bill went up to pay for lead line replacements, Detroit resident Christine Doby says she could handle it.

“I’m worried about people who are already losing their house to foreclosure because they can’t pay their taxes and people who have not been able to maintain the cost of the water bill as it is,” Doby said. “I don’t want us to not do this. I want us to figure out a way and begin now to talk about a way to pay for it that’s equitable.”

Doby would like to see some kind of assessment or study before any rule changes are adopted that would show what they would cost cities like Detroit, Benton Harbor, or Pontiac.

“It’s irresponsible not to. Even if it doesn’t change what we do, just so that our eyes are wide open about what we’re asking utilities and ratepayers to do,” Doby said.

Eric Oswald heads Michigan’s drinking water program. He acknowledged that replacing all lead pipes would be a huge burden for some cities.

“You could call it an unfunded mandate. I mean the rules change would require (lead pipes) to be removed, but the state is bringing resources to the table,” Oswald said.

The state tweaked a low-interest loan program cities already use for water infrastructure improvements to incentivize lead pipe replacement. Oswald also hopes to start up a $10 million pilot grant program. But nothing is finalized yet.

Longtime MDEQ drinking water program official Richard Benzie responded to costs concerns frankly, saying “we don’t have all the answers.”

“But I think we’ve got more attention focused on this issue right now than in the, I hate to say, 40 years I’ve been in this industry. It seems to be a priority for both the state and federal government to provide additional funding for the infrastructure,” Benzie said.

MDEQ hopes to finalize the draft rules in the beginning of January and host a more official public hearing after that.

As part of that process, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department General Counsel Debra Pospiech wants to see an opinion from the Michigan Attorney General, outlining what is legal for a municipality to do if or when it uses public dollars to replace privately owned lead water lines.

“We’d like to see a legal opinion from the state beforehand, instead of going out there and then getting sued by non-residential customers saying you’re improperly using rate dollars to benefit private homeowners,” Pospiech said.

Detroit has an estimated 125,000 lead service lines, more than any city in Michigan.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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