• By Stacy Gittleman

Lead threat: How communities are responding


That is the only acceptably safe level of lead in parts per billion (ppb) that should exist in our drinking water. Yet, the federal action level threshold for lead in drinking water is 15 ppb.

At the height of the 2015 Flint water crisis, the residents living there were using water that contained lead levels as high as 13,200 ppb.

Elin Warn Betanzo of Franklin had 16 years under her belt working on water safety issues in Washington, D.C., including her work in at the EPA conducting studies on local children who were exposed to lead in their drinking water. Now the founding principal engineer of Royal Oak-based Safe Water Engineering, LLC, Betanzo helped uncover the Flint Water crisis and considers herself a “stakeholder” in Michigan’s revved-up 2018 Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) – part of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act that will drop the action threshold for lead to 12 ppb by 2025 and mandate the removal of all lead service lines (LSLs) – the pipes that connect a home to the city’s water main, as well as the lead soldered pipe fixtures and plumbing lines in the state by 2041.

Twenty-one years may seem a long way off to meet a deadline for removing pipes, but environmental and municipal officials explain vast infrastructure projects take planning and budgeting time.

According to Great Lakes Environmental Law Center Executive Director Nick Leonard, the 2041 deadline for LSL removal is largely a product of two factors: cost and lack of knowledge about where lead service lines exist. Regarding costs, Leonard said the rough estimate is that the removal of each service line costs $5,000, but can go as high as $10,000 in some areas where private homes are set far back from a municipality's main line. Michigan rules require public water systems to pay for this in its entirety.

“That's great, but it can also mean that water systems have to charge more in rates for water service to cover the costs. Giving water systems 20 years means they can spread this cost over a longer period, which should help prevent large increases in water rates. Regarding knowledge of the location of the pipes, many water system authorities simply don't know where lead service lines are,” Leonard said.

The good news is that our water sources are safe, according to Michigan's Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) officials. The trouble begins when municipal water collects particles as it moves through lead pipes found in older public municipal systems, pipes that have been soldered with lead, and lead faucets and fixtures.

In October 2014, under the authority of an emergency city management council, Flint switched its water supply from the Detroit water system to a system based in the Flint River and stopped treating the water with anti-corrosive chemicals in order to save money.

Betanzo said it was not until the spring of 2015 that state and federal officials began sampling water in Flint. But sampling from only the first liter of water in homes – which is not highly susceptible to lead exposure – distorted the findings and minimized the severity of the situation. Flint residents, therefore, were continually told the water was fine to use.

“What happened in Flint made it obvious that the federal lead and copper rule was not providing the drinking water protection that people needed,” said Betanzo. “True detection of lead-contaminated tap water can only be captured from the fifth … or even seventh-liter sample. So that's why (the Flint emergency management council) was able to cover up what was happening for quite some time. It was not until Marc Edwards, (a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech University) came in and did additional sampling did we finally see the most concerning levels of lead. That is because the contaminants were originating from pipes outside the homes from a lead service line.”

Four years into one of the largest water infrastructure projects in the nation, Flint expects to remove its last lead pipe by the end of 2020. The project cost an estimated $55 million to replace all the lead pipes in the city. But lasting, damaging health effects on Flint’s children remain.

Though exposure to lead in Oakland County may not be as dire as what happened in Flint, Betanzo cautions that water authorities and residents here should take a lesson and think hard about the lead that still exists in the infrastructure that sourced water traverses to get to their taps.

In a hard-earned lesson from the nation’s most botched and deadly mismanagement of a municipal water system, Governor Rick Snyder in the summer of 2018 through the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), now known as the Michigan Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), introduced a multi-pronged approach to ridding the state of lead in water. In addition to lowering the lead action threshold by 2025, the LCR mandated that starting in 2019, municipalities begin targeted testing for lead, compile an inventory of estimated and known pipes within their jurisdiction, called a Distribution System Materials Inventory (DSMI), to EGLE. The first DSMI was due in January 2020, with the next due in January 2025, with subsequent updates every five years.

The 2018 LCR mandates that all inventoried lead service lines will all have to be removed at a rate of five percent per year until 2041. If the lead in water exceeds the action level, communities must increase the rate of replacing lead lines to seven percent a year.

As a show of transparency, tests and inventory taking are made available to the public through EGLE, water authority and municipal websites, and other communication channels.

This information, as well as consistent messaging to the public about how to prevent lead exposure, is provided by the guidance of another mandate of the LCL: statewide and municipal water systems advisory councils (WSAC) for populations exceeding 50,000.

As the communications arm of the LCR, it was mandated that the state form a Water System Advisory Council (WSAC) to provide consistent messaging and information across municipalities to help the water customers become more aware of lead in drinking water and the associated health risks. Water systems that serve a population greater than 50,000 are required to create a WSAC.

Retired water engineer Keith McCormack presided over the first year of the statewide WSAC and helped to establish advisory councils in 36 municipalities in Michigan. WSACs are comprised of volunteers with backgrounds ranging from public works administrators, medical professionals, public health educators and engineers. It also keeps municipalities and water authorities on compliance track by reminding them of upcoming deadlines. After a year in operation – mostly meeting virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic and the news of PFAS contamination in source waters, McCormack said the concern about lead has somewhat slipped from the public’s eye. Going forward, he said the biggest challenge will be keeping lead safety in the spotlight by posting updates and educational information on websites to mailing fact sheets in water bills.

“After doing this for a year, the biggest challenge that lies ahead is getting the information out to the public,” said McCormack, “After all the attention lead got because of Flint, who could have imagined it would not be the main topic in the last year because of source waters getting tainted from PFAS compounds and the pandemic? It is the job of the advisory councils to keep informing the public and keep raising awareness about the issue.”

With all the talk about lead, many are surprised that copper is lumped into the same law.

Lead in the body is unsafe at any level, especially to children, infants, and pregnant women, but copper is an essential nutrient at acceptable levels, except in infants or those with Wilson’s disease, a genetic disease where copper builds up in the body.

Scott Dean, strategic communications advisor for EGLE, said the federal LCR is designed to limit the corrosivity of drinking water in general. Also, there is no mandate in the LCR to remove copper pipes. Lead removal is where all the focus is.

“Copper remains an approved and preferred plumbing material so the rule does not target copper pipes for removal,” said Dean.

Ultimately, the 2018 changes to the Michigan LCR aim to build back the public’s hard-earned trust in the water that comes out of their tap.

A 2016 American Water Works Association study estimated that there are 460,000 lead service lines in Michigan. Malleable enough to bend and withstand Michigan’s temperature swings without bursting or requiring joint components, lead reigned as the plumbing material of choice through the 1950s. And thanks to decades of spotty record keeping, it’s anybody’s guess exactly where the lines are located.

Complying to Michigan's strictest lead and copper rule will now be a very tall glass of water.

Some municipalities and water authorities, viewing the new state ruling as an unfunded mandate, tried unsuccessfully to challenge the ruling in court when it was instituted. The Michigan Supreme Court decades ago, under the Headlee Tax Limitation Amendment to the state Constitution, had ruled mandates had to be underwritten by the state.

When it comes to regaining the public trust in the water they drink, water authority and municipal officials understand that the issue of removing lead pipes has moved to the forefront of the public mindset after Flint. However, some cash strapped municipalities and the Oakland County Water Resources Commission (WCR) that manages water systems balked at the possibility of putting the cost of compliance on the backs of populations already suffering from high water rates. Others argued that lowering the action level threshold by three ppb is something not set by science.

University of Detroit Law Professor Nick Schroeck said that the new state LCR has made “baby steps” in reducing the action threshold by three ppb.

“It is true that Michigan’s LCR standards are the toughest in the nation, but there is no safe level of lead,” said Schroeck. “There must be a complete removal of all lead piping soldering and fixtures. After Flint, we see that we really need to see people protected long term. Even if you have anti-corrosion in the treated water, it is still taking a chance with lead contamination. As long as these lead pipes are in the ground, it still poses a risk.”

Schroeck added that Michigan’s lead problem did not “spring out of nowhere,” and that municipalities should have been working on getting the lead out for decades. Still, the relatively rapid acceleration of putting the law into place to pay for the removal and replacement of the LSLs – which can cost between $5,000 to 10,000 per pipe – may put a financial strain on municipalities and water rate consumers alike.

“The Flint water crisis shone a huge light on this problem and now the new LCR is telling the state ‘let’s hurry up and get this done and over with.’ The problem is at the municipality level, there are already so many budget restraints and many residents feel their water bills are high enough,” Schroeck said. “To add more water surcharges or hike water rates would be tough to folks who already cannot afford their water bills.”

In the past, a municipality would remove a lead pipe that was part of the public utility but leave in place the lead lines that ran from the easement in the public road to the homeowner’s water meter. Schroeck said these incomplete removal practices put the homeowner at an even greater risk of exposure to lead as remnants of that removed and disturbed lead pipe or solder could break off and find its way into homes.

“Most people do not have the resources to replace that line from the foundation of their home to the street,” said Schroeck. “There is a need for more grant money and support for municipal water utilities to be able to thoroughly do this work.”

Many cash-strapped municipalities were eager to remove all the lead pipes in their systems but questioned the ruling’s constitutionality. They also feared the potential litigation of using public funds to replace LSLS on private property.

That is why in August 2018, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), which provides drinking water to much of southeast Michigan, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), and the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner (WRC) filed a request for a declaratory ruling with the DEQ. The DEQ in October 2018 denied the request. The plaintiffs appealed and brought the case to the state Court of Claims, which subsequently dismissed the case in July 2019.