Michigan's New Lead Rule Exposes Drinking Water Inequality

New drinking water sampling protocols required by Michigan's revised Lead & Copper Rule are exposing inequalities in safe drinking water enforcement.

Having been born and raised in Michigan, the drinking water issues faced by residents throughout the state are very personal for me. Growing up in Detroit, I lived in a home where the water was shut-off because my parents, who both worked full-time, couldn’t afford the unreasonably and inexplicitly high water bills. Some of my closest friends were poisoned in Flint. I had loved ones impacted by the Kalamazoo River Oil Spill. The list goes on. And while the state has begun taking steps to ensure safe drinking water for its residents, its efforts have started to expose the long-standing disconnect between the enforcement of insufficient drinking water standards as they have previously existed and new standards that are meant to be more health protective. One of the first instances of this disconnect is occurring in Highland Park, MI.

On July 17, 2019, the first news reports broke that the City of Highland Park, Michigan had begun informing its residents of elevated levels of lead in their drinking water. The current action level for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion (ppb), yet the 90th percentile for Highland Park homes tested this Summer was 57 ppb with at least one home testing as high as 620 ppb—triggering the city take corrective action to remedy the problem. Statewide testing results, including Highland Park’s, can be found on the state’s lead website.

While the state suggests that Highland Park as has not exceeded lead action levels in over 2 decades, this is the first time that the city was subject to a more thorough sampling protocol. Under Michigan’s newly revised Lead & Copper Rule, which was prompted as a necessary response to the Flint Water Crisis, water suppliers that have lead service lines are now required to collect and test a 5th liter sample. Prior to the change, water suppliers were required to test only the first liter sample collected. For context, the 1st liter collected represents the water a person is likely to drink when they first turn on their tap while the newly required 5th liter collected represents the water sitting in the lead service line. The exceedance of the lead action level by some water suppliers would not have been difficult to predict under the revised Rule, as the new sampling protocol provides a more accurate view of the real conditions of lead in drinking water in a home. And it should also come as no surprise that a city like Highland Park would be among the first to report elevated lead levels under the new sampling protocol.

Considered a city within a city because it is encircled almost entirely by the City of Detroit, Highland Park’s population is over 90% black or African American with an estimated 50% of its residents living at or below the federal poverty level according to U.S. Census data. It is the epitome of the U.S. EPA’s definition of an Overburdened Community (i.e., an Environmental Justice Community) in that it is a majority persons of color, low-income community “that potentially experience[s] disproportionate environmental harms and risks.” Paralleling other EJ communities around the state, Highland park residents had their democratically elected powers usurped by state emergency management at one time, making it ripe for this type of environmental injustice. Notably, the presence of Highland Park’s lead issues is not dissimilar to the elevated lead levels being experienced in Benton Harbor, the water shutoff crisis facing Detroit, and the lead poisoning suffered in Flint as these issues arose following emergency management in each city. It is no coincidence that the racial and economic demographics of these 4 cities are similar to one another and that they each face some of the most concerning environmental conditions in the state that have resulted in lack of access to clean, affordable drinking water: something that I believe is a basic human right for all. Unfortunately, Michigan’s drinking water failures are not the exception in the U.S., but rather the norm as their inadequacies affirm the national findings of researchers in the newly published Watered Down Justice report that people of color and low-income residents face “unequal access to safe drinking water.” As noted by Kristi Pullen Fedinick, the report’s co-author and NRDC’s Director of Science and Data, in a recent interview, “we have underlying structural racism,” within our nation’s drinking water systems and “laws that should be equal aren’t equal in their application.”

The exceedance of the 15 ppb lead action level required the city to further investigate the high levels of lead by doing additional, continued water sampling and lead education outreach to its residents, as the city noted in a July 17th Public Advisory Notice to its water costumers. The Public Advisory Notice also recommended action steps that residents should take in order to reduce their exposure to lead. Following the notice, water filters were available at the city’s Fire Department and instructions were given on how to contact the city’s Water Department for residents who would like to have their water tested for lead. Lastly, the city partnered with the state to host a community informational session on August 13th where residents were able to ask questions and learn about what resources are available to them.

Highland Park appears to be taking the steps necessary mitigate damage while working to fix its existing lead contamination problem. However, far too often, as is the case with Highland Park, our most vulnerable communities are used as canaries in the coal mine. Thus, decision-makers tend to wait until people of color, low-income individuals, pregnant women, the elderly, and children are exposed to environmental hazards before remedial action is taken when primary prevention should be paramount to public health. With Michigan’s new Lead & Copper Rule, the most protective rule in the country, steps are being taken to get do better with the new testing protocols, the lowering of Michigan’s lead action level to 12 ppb beginning in 2025, and the mandated replacement of all lead service lines in the state by January 1, 2041. Likewise, there is a national push to update the federal Lead & Copper Rule to more be health-protective with an action level of no higher than 5 ppb and the requirement of the replacement of all lead service lines. But as the Michigan Rule continues to be implemented in segments and we await the proposed revised federal rule, we must remain vigilant in holding water suppliers accountable for doing something that seems simple enough: providing potable water that doesn’t poison the people drinking it.

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