Replacing the state’s lead service lines will be a massive undertaking, but five years after the Flint water crisis, residents deserve no less.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, made headlines worldwide as an example of environmental injustice and governmental malfeasance writ large. Officials took far too long to acknowledge the grave mistake they had made by switching Flint’s supply of drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, thereby triggering a lead contamination crisis. More than 100,000 residents of this working-class, majority black community—including as many as 9,000 children under the age of six—were exposed to this highly dangerous heavy metal. Experts agree that no amount of lead exposure is safe and that children are especially vulnerable: At even the lowest levels, it can cause damage to developing brains and nervous systems.
Now, five years after Flint—and despite all that we’ve learned about what happened and why—Michigan’s water utilities are actively opposing efforts to fix the state’s lead problem. In turn, residents still find themselves at risk of exposure from a number of as-yet-unidentified lead pipes that remain underground. Given the state’s recent history, you might think that water utilities would be uniformly vigilant about getting rid of these pipes as quickly as possible. But disturbingly, some of them are instead applying that vigilance toward fighting a new protection put in place by former governor Rick Snyder.
The rule became a law last June, in an appropriate (if long overdue) acknowledgement of the continued vulnerability of the state’s superannuated water systems, many of which use lead service lines. Snyder recognized that the federal Lead and Copper Rule, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency back in 1991, was poorly worded and has been insufficiently enforced; Michigan’s new rule, he said, would be “smarter” and “safer,” with “more stringent standards” that could “serve as a role model to other states looking to improve their own public health protections.” Among other things, the new rule would make Michigan’s actionable level for lead in water lower than the current federal standard and would require the removal of lead service lines throughout the state.
But while Michigan is stepping up to protect its residents from harm, some water agencies are trying to stop these efforts from moving forward.
At issue is a core component of the new rule: the requirement that every water provider in the state replace all of its lead service lines, in their entirety, by 2040 unless the provider can demonstrate through its asset management plan that it needs more time. This past winter, the city of Detroit’s water utility and a group of Detroit-area water agencies sued the state in hopes of quashing the rule, claiming that replacing an estimated 500,000 lines in their jurisdictions would cost local governments as much as $2.5 billion over 20 years and expose them to legal action if they were unable to adhere to the imposed timeline. They’ve accused the state of “go[ing] about its lead regulation illegally and arbitrarily” and “plac[ing] impossible financial burdens and serious legal hurdles on water suppliers, local governments, ratepayers, and taxpayers.”
These water agencies fail to acknowledge that the benefits of making the water safe for all of us, especially children who are most at risk from lead, far outweigh the costs of removing the toxic lead pipes, according to studies by both government experts and the Pew Research Center. Also, the water agencies’ estimated $2.5 billion figure is likely high because it assumes that over the course of 20 years (or more) water utilities would be achieving no new efficiencies from their new systems. This notion is absurd, since they would be updating old, decrepit, malfunctioning water systems with modern infrastructure designed to maximize efficiency. Scientists and data-crunchers are already discovering ways to save water providers millions of dollars during the replacement process, and there will surely be many more studies to follow in years to come.
But service line replacement is a small portion of Michigan’s overall water problem. After generations of neglect, the bill for our outdated and crumbling infrastructure has come due. In 2016 the Michigan Infrastructure Council estimated that Michigan needs about $1 billion per year in investments for water infrastructure. The estimate is significantly higher now given the recent discovery of widespread PFAS contamination impacting water systems across the state. Clearly, these water utilities would do better by fighting for funding to ensure safe drinking water than by fighting to keep hazardous lead pipes in the ground. There is widespread agreement that additional state and federal assistance is needed to help water systems address these challenges, especially those serving disadvantaged communities.
No one is denying that replacing Michigan’s lead service lines is going to be a massive undertaking. But can anyone deny that it’s absolutely, unequivocally necessary to help ensure the health of the state’s 10 million residents, and especially the hundreds of thousands of Michigan children who are most vulnerable to lead in drinking water? Five years ago, it didn’t seem possible that Michigan would be able to turn itself around and craft the strongest water protections in the country. But that’s exactly what it did. Now these water utilities need to join the fight to get the lead out of Michigan’s drinking water—or, at the very least, they should get out of the way.