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State regulators say Michigan cities testing for lead this summer face more scrutiny

Virginia Tech
Anurag Mantha, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, fills a water sample bottle in a Flint resident's kitchen earlier this year.

The head of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality says the agency will be taking a much closer look at how cities across the state are testing for lead in water this summer.

MDEQ interim Director Keith Creagh says his agency will ask the state’s 1,400 water systems tough questions about how and where they’re testing for lead.

Creagh says DEQ will ask cities to prove they’re testing for lead at the right homes, particularly those with lead service lines.

In the past, regulators took cities at their word. But in Flint, workers were not testing at the correct homes, called Tier 1 sites. The city’s records about the materials pipes are made of weren’t reliable. That and other factors allowed officials to tell residents the water was safe to drink when it wasn’t.

AMichigan Radio investigation found many cities, not just Flint, do not have reliable records or may not know which homes still have lead service lines.

“You’ll see us be very engaged in asking people (responsible for operating water systems), ‘How do you actually determine your Tier 1 sites? How do you confirm that? How do you know where your lead service lines are?'” Creagh said. “Even if you are ‘technically compliant’ you need to go beyond that.”

Cities are supposed to notify residents if lead tests at their homes show results above 15 parts per billion. But Creagh says MDEQ wants cities to do a better job explaining to those individuals how to protect themselves from lead exposure.

“That’s where, from my perspective, we need to be,” he said.

The state has also made changes to its guidelines for cities to send to residents who take compliance samples. The new guidelines do not include a controversial "pre-flushing" practice that many Michigan cities have adopted.

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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