Michigan Drinking Water Protections Should Be EPA's Minimum

On the same day that Michigan’s most protective in the nation lead in drinking water rule cleared a major legal court challenge, the Trump Administration’s EPA actually pushed protections for the rest of America further back.

Credit: Angela Guyadeen

Safe drinking water is one of the most basic protections a government can provide. Michigan is taking this responsibility seriously, while the EPA is trying to roll back its already inadequate lead in drinking water rule. On the same day that Michigan’s most protective in the nation lead in drinking water rule cleared a major legal court challenge, the Trump Administration’s EPA actually pushed protections for the rest of America further back.

After the Flint water crisis, the state of Michigan passed and implemented the most protective Lead and Copper Rule in the country. Last week justice prevailed. The effort to quash this rule, aimed at preventing future disasters like Flint, was rejected this week by the Michigan Court of Claims. This important legal victory in Michigan allows the state to move full steam ahead with fully replacing lead services lines and taking other precautions to reduce lead exposure.

Ironically, as this ground-breaking rule was upheld, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its proposal to revise the federal version of the rule, rolling back any potential progress that could be made on eliminating lead from drinking water nationally.

Most disappointing, and damaging to public health, is that the federal revisions would substantially delay the already slow progress in the replacement of the estimated 6 to 10 million lead service lines across the country. Under the existing rule, water suppliers testing with high lead contamination (above EPA’s lead “Action Level” of 15 parts per billion, or ppb) are required to replace 7% of lead service lines per year until they bring their lead levels below the Action Level—thus requiring replacements within about 13 years.

Under the proposed revisions to the rule, the EPA would weaken the annual rate of replacement by highly-contaminated systems, requiring only 3% of lead service lines be replaced per year –significantly extending the time that lead pipes would remain in the ground and essentially prolonging human exposure to lead in drinking over the course of another 33 years. While the proposal does include a few modest improvements to the rule (such as requiring an inventory of lead service lines, and discouraging partial lead service line replacements), these enhancements pale compared to the 33-year delay in replacing the lead pipes at water systems with high lead levels.

This is unacceptable, especially considering that Michigan has a much stronger Lead & Copper Rule on the books that far exceed the existing and proposed federal rule when it comes to protecting public health.

Under Michigan’s revised Lead & Copper Rule, water suppliers are to complete full lead service lines replacement within 20 years, replacing on average 5% of lead service lines annually. Also importantly, Michigan’s rule required water utilities to perform full lead service line replacement, an important provision that is especially helpful for low income communities and many communities of color. Michigan also lowered its lead action level to 12 ppb (which is lower than the existing federal action level of 15ppb) and implemented a 5th liter water sampling protocol that better measures a home’’ exposure to lead drinking water coming out of the faucet at homes with lead service lines.

These new requirements make Michigan’s Lead & Copper Rule the most protective in the country and while it still could use some improvements, it can serve a model for what other states and the federal government should be doing protect the health and well-being of all people—especially its most vulnerable populations and environmental justice communities.

Essentially Michigan is taking one big leap forward while the EPA is taking one step back. This is truly a swing and a miss on the part of the EPA. Michigan has spent a significant amount of time figuring out how to make things right for their residents and their rule is a model that federal regulations should follow.

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