Will Michigan Lead on Getting Lead Out of Drinking Water?

Credit: Angela Guyadeen

The Flint Water Crisis is a constant and tragic reminder of what can go wrong when you combine weak drinking water safeguards, an underfunded and politically restrained oversight agency, and a severely weakened democracy.

Thanks to the recent settlement NRDC secured with help from the ACLU and local partners, Flint is in the process of replacing an estimated 18,000 lead pipes connecting homes to water mains. Michigan officials estimate there are approximately 500,000 households with these conduits, which constantly threaten to deliver lead-tainted water to homes. The vast majority of water utilities have either ignored these pipes, or they’ve only replaced the portion by the curb—known as a partial lead service line replacement—rather than all the way from the water main to the home. These partial pipe replacements pose even greater risks to public health, and the practice should be banned.

It is noteworthy, however, that the City of Lansing is a leader in replacing lead pipes from the water main to the home. In fact, Lansing is one of only three U.S. communities that had lead pipes and completely eliminated them from their drinking water systems.

The State of Michigan could also be the national leader, but could is the key word. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is poised to release a draft proposal for updating the state’s Lead and Copper Rule which, if devised and implemented properly, will eliminate the lead pipes that threaten our health.

Let’s face it: our water infrastructure is crumbling and lead pipes pose a great threat to our health and especially to the health of our children. While residents of low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by lead pipes, the problem impacts communities throughout the state.

We believe that Michigan should be the national leader in getting lead out of drinking water especially given the tragedy that unfolded in Flint where the health and well-being of residents was sacrificed in the name of saving a few dollars. But to be protective of public health, Michigan’s final Lead and Copper Rule must do at least the following:

  1. It must mandate full lead pipe replacement from the water main to the home; partial replacements pose even greater risks of lead contamination.
  2. It must require extensive public education and safety measures to protect residents from high lead levels during and for months following lead pipe replacements.
  3. Lead pipe inventories conducted by water systems must include physical examination of the pipes; they cannot rely on best guesses.
  4. There should be no arbitrary so-called Household Action Level (HAL) especially when exceeding this threshold does not trigger any meaningful response. Earlier drafts of the rule included a HAL as high as 40 parts per billion, which is neither scientifically nor health-based. We know there is no safe level of lead. If the state is adamant about developing a HAL, it must be triggered when lead is detected in the household drinking water and that detection level is 1 part per billion.
  5. Water systems with lead pipes must be required to use the best treatment available—known as Optimized Corrosion Control Treatment—to ensure lead levels are kept as low as possible.
  6. Water systems must conduct robust and extensive monitoring of drinking water at the tap to provide a clearer picture of the amount of lead in the system’s drinking water. 

This is not a comprehensive list, but incorporating these measures would set the nation’s highest public health protections for systems with lead pipes. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the devastation in Flint, it’s that we must get all of these pipes out of the ground with haste.

Will Michigan be the nation’s leader in eliminating lead from drinking water? Only if these measures are included in the state’s final rule. To help ensure this happens, we’ll be informing and engaging Michigan residents in the coming weeks to ensure a future with lead-free water for all.

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