Michigan’s Lead in Drinking Water Protections Under Attack

In the wake of the Flint Water Crisis, the State of Michigan put forth the nation’s most protective lead in drinking water safeguards in the form of its landmark Lead and Copper Rule. Michigan is now leading the way in removing the lead coming from pipes connecting homes to water mains in the street. During 2017-2018, NRDC spent months in stakeholder negotiations with the water utilities and their representatives, public health advocates, and others to craft a rule that gets the lead pipes out of the water system as quickly and safely as possible.

So, it is quite surprising that the Lead and Copper Rule is being challenged in court by Michigan water providers. Think about that: our lead in drinking water protections are being challenged by water system leaders who have seen the horrors of poisoned water in Flint and who know of ongoing lead releases in water systems throughout the state. Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan through the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, Mayor Dennis Wright through the City of Livonia, and the southeast Michigan regional body known as the Great Lakes Water Authority have banded together to try to overturn the new rule in court. 

Although NRDC didn’t secure everything we were looking for in the updated Lead and Copper Rule, we strongly supported the new rule. That is why we filed a friend of the court brief challenging key points being put forth in the lawsuit. The full brief is available here but the main takeaways are:

  • No amount of lead exposure is safe for humans, especially children, who are both more susceptible to lead poising and more likely to suffer a range of serious health consequences.
  • MDEQ properly finalized lowering the lead action level from 15 ppb to 12 ppb, which will help to decrease lead exposure and the associated adverse health effects.
  • MDEQ’s mandate that all lead service lines be replaced, not just part of those lines, is needed because partially removing these service lines can actually increase the levels of lead in tap water since it can shake lead loose from the pipes, and is a legal necessity given MDEQ’s unambiguous duty to protect public health.
  • Under the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act, public water providers unquestionably have power and control over service lines that run underneath private property and therefore have the authority and responsibility to replace those lines as well.
  • Public water providers’ complaint that the cost and nature of replacing all lead service is too burdensome is a political concern, not a legal question for the court to decide. Nonetheless, MDEQ adequately addressed this concern in the rule by giving water providers 20 years, and additional time if needed, to replace lead service lines.

Michigan is reeling from the daily revelations about lead, PFAS, dioxane and other contaminants in our drinking water. The Lead and Copper Rule is the first major improvement in the state’s drinking water protections since we began waking up to the horrors of unsafe drinking water in Michigan. We hope to prevail in court so we can retain these critical safeguards even if some of our local elected officials are letting us down.

About the Authors

Cyndi Roper

Michigan Senior Policy Advocate, Safe Water Initiative, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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