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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.

Romulus blames high lead levels on one vacant home that's not vacant

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Nicole Hrosch and Jeff Crowe, with their son Christopher.

Three communities in Michigan are taking a much closer look for lead in their drinking water this year.

Those three are Houghton, home of Michigan Tech up in the U.P., and the Detroit suburbs of Beverly Hills and Romulus.

All three cities did routine testing for lead in water last year. And their lead levels were higher than the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion.

Houghton was barely over the limit and is tweaking how it treats the water.

Beverly Hills had the highest level -- but that’s only because it had one super high result that the city is now trying to get thrown out.

In Romulus, city officials wouldn’t talk about their lead results. In notices it has sent to people and posted online, Romulus is blaming its results on one vacant home.

So when I drove by to see if anyone was home, I was surprised to find it was not vacant. Nicole Hrosch and Jeff Crowe were living there. Their one-year-old son Christopher, who'd just woken up from a nap, held his dada tight. He’s got a cute mess of red hair, and eventually flashed a little smile.

The family moved in last July and lived there until earlier this year. Nicole had just found out she was pregnant when they moved in. Christopher's little sister is due any day now.

"It’s a beautiful house until you get to know what the real issues with it are," Nicole said.

Three weeks before they moved in, the lead levels in the water at this house tested as high as 120 parts per billion. That's eight times higher than the federal standard for lead in drinking water of 15 parts per billion.

But the couple says they never saw those numbers.

Jeff only knew that their landlord had them sign a document that said they wouldn’t drink the water and they wouldn’t sue their landlord if any health issues came up because of the water.

“He had us just put up first month's rent and said that the security deposit was contingent upon them fixing the plumbing problem," Jeff said. "Which he said, 'You know, there’s a slight lead problem and oh but it wasn’t that bad just don’t drink it or give it to the baby.' And to boil it or something if we were going to use it for cooking.'"

The owner of this house would not agree to a recorded interview. But he said he never told the family to boil the water to get rid of the lead. Boiling water does not remove lead. He also disagrees with the city's characterization that the home was ever "vacant."

Romulus only had to test eight homes in total. And half of those homes had lead levels above seven parts per billion.

The good news is once the landlord saw the super high lead levels, he agreed to fork over $1,800 to replace the entire lead service line a few weeks after Jeff and Nicole moved in.

After that lead line was gone, there was no lead detected in follow-up samples; not in those collected by the city or the ones Michigan Radio collected and paid to have analyzed.

Romulus downplays any lead issue in public notices it’s put out. Sometimes, officials removed the key word "lead" from the headline for public notices about lead-in-water levels.

In one notice, the city’s public works director writes, incorrectly, that “All samples that were taken were below the EPA limits of 15 parts per billion.” He adds that a corrosion control plan “mitigates any lead leaching from lead plumbing” which is also false.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Tiffany Brown says the agency did review Romulus’ public notices.

“We are concerned by some of the changes made after our review, and will follow-up with the City,” Brown said.

More than anything, the city emphasizes this one "vacant" house was an isolated case.

But Romulus only had to test eight homes in total last summer. And half of those homes had lead levels above seven parts per billion.

It’s certainly nothing to panic over, but there is no safe level of lead in water. If you live in Romulus, it’s probably not a bad idea to find out if you have a lead pipe and to get your water tested.

Lead levels may have been higher at this home for a couple of reasons, including that the city was replacing the water main in the road out front. That kind of work can disturb lead scale that builds up on old pipes, releasing tiny flakes into the tap water.

The city is also doing a lot more testing – at least 60 homes this year. That should help determine if this one house was in fact an isolated incident. That first round of testing should wrap up next month.
Nisa Khan, Kaye LaFond and Lara Moehlman contributed to this story.

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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