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Public tells state “be bold” updating lead in water rules, others say changes "not feasible"

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
A busload of people from Flint encouraged MDEQ to hold public hearings in Flint and Detroit.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality should update its rules on the level of lead that’s considered acceptable in drinking water.

That is the one thing most everyone at a public hearing in Lansing Thursday night did agree on.

But many Flint activists and environmentalists say the proposed changes to lead rules don’t go far enough. Others, especially those running community water systems, say changes go way too far, presenting major legal and cost issues.

The sweeping changes come in response to the Flint water crisis.

MDEQ would lower the so-called “action level” for lead. That’s a water treatment standard, a calculation gauging how corrosive a town’s water is to the pipes that bring drinking water into homes. It’s not a health standard. Health officials say no amount of lead in water is considered safe.

Under the proposed rule, the action level would drop from 15 parts per billion to 10 ppb in 2024. That would be the toughest lead in water standard in the country.

A busload of people from Flint, said that does not go far enough.

“This agency had the opportunity to amend the largest mad-made public disaster in the history of this country by having a threshold level of zero,” Nayyirah Shariff told the panel of MDEQ drinking water employees.

She also wants the state to ban the practice where a utility replaces only part of a lead water pipe and require public notices in languages other than English.

Related: Risky, common lead pipe replacement practice gets a second look in Michigan

“You could have been bold and centered the interest of the public over these incremental steps that don’t have the long-term impact we need,” Shariff, director of the grassroots group Flint Rising said.

“You may ask why we picked the number 10 (ppb),” said Eric Oswald, the director of MDEQ’s drinking water division, explained in a presentation before the public hearing. “It’s because it’s less than 15 and it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

Oswald said cities must figure out where lead service lines are buried and take more samples at homes connected via lead pipes.

INTERACTIVE MAP: More than half of cities with lead pipes on GLWA don't know where they are

Most of the local government officials and water professionals didn’t take issue with the move from 15 ppb to 10 ppb for lead.

“Implementation of this rule would cost local communities and their residents millions of dollars with no known benefits to our residents,” said Amy Mangus, a deputy executive director at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

Mangus says lead paint and dust is a far greater concern among health officials she’s talked to.

“It’s not feasible as proposed,” Mangus said.

What would make it feasible? Many municipalities don’t want to have to rush lead pipe replacements under state-imposed deadlines. Detroit estimates it would cost up to $600 million and have concerns it would force them to raise rates and delay other needed infrastructure upgrades.

One of the biggest concerns, though, is a legal one. Many cities worry they’ll be sued if they use public money to replace lead water pipes on private property.  

SEMCOG and other local government organizations, along with the Michigan chapter of the American Water Works Association plan to jointly submit an alternative approach to MDEQ.

“These incremental changes are meaningless without a robust implementation plan,” Nayyirah Shariff said at the end of the hearing.

“There were many recommendations in the Flint water task force report. I hope in the future the MDEQ gives a public update on how the internal culture has shifted and how many of these recommendations you have adopted and what’s the timeline for implementation,” she said.

MDEQ has extended the public comment period for the Lead and Copper Rule revisions. Comments must be received by March 21.

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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