Nearly 380,000 Michigan residents get their water from systems that would fail to meet a tough new lead-safety standard proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder, including those in Monroe, Bay City, Benton Harbor and Holland Township.
More than three dozen public water systems currently have tested lead levels exceeding the safety threshold Snyder plans to implement by 2020, which would be the nation’s most stringent standard. The Snyder administration has not yet specified what corrective action the communities would need to take.
Most are small systems with few customers — well water at condominiums, trailer parks and retirement communities, for instance — but others have much larger footprints.
In Monroe, where the municipal treatment plant serves about 49,000 area residents, James Smith said he already keeps a regular supply of bottled water at the home he shares with his wife, two daughters and grandson.
“Monroe is not as big as Flint, but it’s old, so we can’t be doing much better,” said Smith, referencing the water contamination crisis that inspired Snyder’s push for tougher rules. “Right or wrong, I’ve had to think about it.”
Monroe water has lead levels matching — but not quite exceeding — the federal action level that Snyder wants to build on. At 15 parts per billion in 90th percentile testing completed late last year, the city’s water supply would not comply with the governor’s tougher new rule.
“The less the better,” said Smith, 64, who hadn’t seen Monroe’s latest test results but wasn’t taking any chances. “Too bad we can’t get it down to zero.”
Statewide lead test results provided by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality show the potential impact of Snyder’s continuing push to limit exposure to the dangerous toxin after his administration and emergency manager were blamed for a slow response in Flint.
Six small public water supplies had lead levels exceeding the federal action limit of 15 ppb in their most recent monitoring periods, which ranged from 2014 to 2016, according to the state. By contrast, Detroit’s water supply that covers the region tested at 4 ppb last year.
Snyder’s plan, which he is pursuing through administrative rule changes rather than legislation, would create a lower state action level of 10 ppb, building on a federal Lead and Copper Rule he calls “dumb and dangerous.”
“We need a Michigan rule that is smart and safe,” Snyder said in announcing the new plan.
Under Snyder’s proposed threshold of 10 ppb lead, 31 additional water systems would currently be considered out of compliance and forced to take corrective action.
That list includes Flint, where lead levels dropped to 12 ppb in the second half of 2016 in a city that is already engaged in a massive project to upgrade its entire water system.
The Bay Area Water System, a new regional supply servicing nearly 100,000 residents in Bay City and surrounding communities, tested at 14 ppb.
Officials have changed corrosion control levels at the $59.6 million Bay Area Water System plant, which went online in late 2015. Lead levels are quickly dropping, said Jim Lillo, engineer-manager for the Bay County Road Commission, which oversees the water and sewer department.
Holland Township, with a service area population of 34,344 residents, tested at 13 ppb. Benton Harbor tested at 12 ppb in the second half of 2015 and serves and area with roughly 10,000 residents.
Replacing the lines
The Detroit News spoke with a host of water officials in communities with lead levels exceeding 10 ppb. Most supported the governor’s new lead action level, but several said they may need additional state help to comply with the more stringent rule.
Monroe Water Department Director Barry LaRoy said his agency is taking a “proactive” approach to reduce lead levels as it treats water drawn from Lake Erie, including chemical corrosion control testing through a consultant. But he said Snyder’s directive could amount to an “unfunded mandate,” suggesting the need for more financing opportunities through the federally funded Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund.
Monroe has never violated the federal action level or exceeded it, LaRoy said, “but we’ve noticed the last two cycles the lead levels have come up,” prompting local action.
“We’re doing it in-house with our operations and capital improvement projects,” LaRoy said. “That ultimately will help reduce the levels, but it’s a balancing act between water chemistry and operating budgets.”
Like Flint, Monroe is also working to replace old lead service lines that snake beneath the city. About 740 of those pipes remain underground, LeRoy said, down from 2,220 in the early 1990s.
State regulators failed to ensure that Flint used proper corrosion control chemicals when it began using Flint River water in April 2014. The harsh water ended up damaging old pipes that leached lead into the water supply, eventually prompting local, state and federal emergency declarations.
Public health experts say exposure to any level of lead can be problematic, especially for children with developing brains. But the state has authority to force action only when testing exceeds the federal limit of 15 ppb.
DEQ spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said those actions can include public education initiatives, additional water quality sampling, fixture replacements and required use of corrosion control chemicals.
Responding to Flint, the state moved to prohibit a “pre-flushing” practice that critics said could lower lead levels samples collected during required testing periods. Snyder is urging the Legislature to strengthen sampling method laws and require annual testing at state-licensed facilities that serve kids or seniors, including schools and nursing homes.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, is backing the governor’s push for tougher lead limits but said the state must also help communities meet the goals.
“I think we should provide a carrot and a stick,” Ananich said. “The stick is updated rules to protect people, and the carrot is funding whatever may be required.”
State legislators have so far approved more than $250 million in funding to help resolve the Flint water crisis, and Congress approved an addition $100 million for the city.
But Snyder’s call for additional funding to update aging infrastructure around the state has largely fallen on deaf ears in the Republican-led state Legislature. He proposed depositing $165 million into a statewide infrastructure fund in the current budget year; legislators gave him $5 million.
Cash-strapped Benton Harbor would be over the acceptable lead limit if Snyder’s lower threshold had been in place when the water was last tested in 2015. Lead levels came in at 13 ppb – under the federal level that would require official action, but still higher than much of the rest of Michigan.
Benton Harbor City Manager Darwin Watson said he supports Snyder’s new proposal and said lowering lead levels won’t require “a lot of remediation.”
Michael O’Malley, who oversees the city’s water treatment plant, said officials could take steps to reduce lead levels such as adding a “polyphosphate” to the water or driving up the pH – a measure of the water’s acidity – to expedite “scale forming,” which helps protect against corrosion. The elevated lead levels were mostly caused by older lead service lines running from private property to now-vacant homes, and the city replaces city-owned lead lines it discovers during testing, Watson said.
Benton Harbor had emergency managers until 2014, after Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm first made the financial emergency declaration in 2010.
Snyder announced last week he will also pursue a new administrative rule requiring most public water systems to perform a “full system inventory” to identify materials, including lead service lines.
Flint stored its lead service line records on hand-written note cards, but surveys have since targeted more than 20,000 pipes for removal.
Benton Harbor’s O’Malley worked for the city’s water plant from 2008 to 2012 and came back in July after being let go. Since July, the city replaced seven lead service lines. He said it has replaced perhaps hundreds since the 1990s, but officials do not keep reliable records on how many still exist.
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