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Detroit suburb says it’s “paying for the sins” of MDEQ in Flint water crisis, sues state

Apr 3, 2018

Jennifer Gilchrist moved from New York City back home to the Detroit suburb of Beverly Hills in 2016. She moved to help take care of her mom Joellen, a retired Detroit high school teacher, and to fix up her childhood home.

That’s when a plumber told them they had a lead service line.

Service lines are the underground pipes connecting your home to the water main.

Joellen and Jennifer (right) Gilchrist at their home in Beverly Hills, MI.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Gilchrist gave the village office in Beverly Hills a call. She knew cities periodically test water at homes with lead pipes and she wanted her water tested.

“I was like, ‘Hi, we’re a high risk house. I want to get on that list,'” Gilchrist recalls.

To be on the safe side, her brother installed a filter on the kitchen faucet. He gave them cans of LaCroix to drink, she said.

About a year went by, Gilchrist says, before the village gave her a sample bottle with very specific instructions.

“During the test they were like, ‘Make sure you’re not going through a filter,' so I, yeah, I took the filter off and then took the water,” Gilchrist said.

A couple weeks later, Gilchrist and her mom got the results. No amount of lead in water is safe, but their lead level came back 15 times higher than the federal standard.  

“At that point we were freaking out. Because before the 228 (parts per billion of lead) we were not freaking out at all. We’d never dreamed in a million years that we’d have high lead. Really, other than my paranoid brother, the two of us really didn’t care. We were not worried,” Gilchrist said, glancing at her mom on the red sofa.

Luckily, Jennifer’s mom had saved enough money to replace the old lead line. The village quickly replaced its portion too, Gilchrist said. They retested the water. Those samples came back normal.

But by then, the regulatory gears were already in motion. That sample at the Gilchrist house became a red flag. 

Gilchrist sample becomes a red flag under the Lead and Copper Rule

That one sample at the Gilchrist house that day in late August was so high, and Beverly Hills tests so few homes, it kicked the entire community’s results above the federal limit for lead in tap water.

When Beverly Hills’ village manager got the news, he appealed to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Chris Wilson asked the state to invalidate the high sample from the Gilchrist house.

To Wilson’s dismay, the state said no. MDEQ told Wilson he must warn the public about lead in the water. 

“We didn’t want to create a public scare. That there was a problem with the water in this community, because there’s not, and we know there’s not and the DEQ knows there’s not,” Wilson said.

Forcing Beverly Hills to publicize that the village had a lead in water problem was shortsighted, Wilson said of the DEQ, and the village told the agency just that during a “frank discussion” on the phone in September. He couldn’t believe the agency was so reluctant to use “any bureaucratic discretion.”

"I think the feeling of the village and other communities here, it's now become a case of paying for the sins of the father. The state and the DEQ made so many missteps in Flint that led to serious consequences. But that doesn't mean other communities that are doing the right thing should get scrutinized at this level," Wilson said.

Because the village gets water from the Great Lakes Water Authority, it only has to test five homes a year. The Gilchrist’s sample was the 6th. The other samples all came back "non-detect" for lead.

Village sues MDEQ to get sample invalidated

The bottom line is Beverly Hills thinks the Gilchrist sample is bogus.

Joellen Gilchrist suffers some memory loss and occasionally feeds and waters her two cats in the middle of the night, Jennifer Gilchrist said. Therefore, she could not guarantee the water sat stagnant for six hours before testing, as the rules require. It could’ve been less than six hours, Gilchrist said.

“I’m not sure what we could’ve done to prevent that,” Jennifer’s brother, Chad Gilchrist said. “Looking back, maybe we could’ve gotten my mom out of the house for the night, I guess.”

They certainly didn’t think it would become part of a legal issue. The “stagnation period” for the Gilchrist sample is now one of nine technical reasons the village cites as potential reasons to invalidate the sample.

But the state points out the longer the water stands still in a lead pipe, the more lead the pipe would leach, so invalidating a high sample for having too short a stagnation period defies common sense, lawyers for the MDEQ wrote in a court filing last month.

Another issue is that filter Jennifer Gilchrist’s brother put on the kitchen faucet.

Jennifer Gilchrist remembers going around and around with village officials about the filter last fall. They spent a lot of time figuring out if she had bypassed the filter with it still on the faucet, or if she took it off entirely. She had to sign an affidavit.

“I remember that annoyed me because I was like ‘who cares?’ The point is I did it right. It didn’t go through a filtering system. There’s no filter. You can’t blame this on a filter,” Gilchrist said.

But the village of Beverly Hills is suing the state in Oakland County Circuit court anyway. It’s concern is that there may have been a small lead flake behind the filter that, once the filter was removed, got into the sample bottle.

MDEQ did not respond to a request for comment. But in a court filing last month, the MDEQ said there is no reason to invalidate the Gilchrist sample.

Instead, the Gilchrist sample serves as this potential red flag. That red flag means Beverly Hills has to do more than just routine sampling.

That way, the state argues, Beverly Hills can see if there are other homes with high lead levels the village has missed, homes just like the Gilchrist’s.

Looking for more lead in Beverly Hills

Elin Betanzo is a water engineer who happens to live in the Detroit suburb.

“Lead release is sporadic and that’s the whole problem,” she said.

Elin Betanzo is an engineer and lead in water expert, who happens to live in Beverly Hills.
Credit Jean Lannen

Betanzo says you can’t always predict when lead flakes from old pipes will get into the water and end up in a sample bottle or a glass of water you’re going to drink. Betanzo says that’s why you can’t always reproduce the results even from the same faucet.

She does not have a lead service line, but she does have a lead filter on the water dispenser on her fridge. She encourages her two kids to get water from the filter stations at their school, Beverly Elementary, which is part of the Birmingham public school system.

When she found out Beverly Hills was above the action level for lead, she dug up data for Birmingham Public Schools. All the district's schools, like Beverly Hills, get water from the Great Lakes Water Authority. But some of the buildings get GLWA water via the village of Beverly Hills.

Just a few days before Jennifer Gilchrist took her sample last summer, the school district put out a public notice to parents about its lead water testing.

Birmingham Public Schools took more than 2,000 samples last school year. It found elevated levels in five of the district’s 19 buildings.

Many that tested positive were not drinking-specific fixtures. For example, some were in science labs. Others were bathroom sinks.

But ten of those fixtures were for drinking, and the district replaced them, along with four faucets in kitchen areas.

Village manager Chris Wilson was unaware of the school’s results. There’s nothing in the law that requires the school to notify the water system. But the village was required and did send a notice to the schools about the Gilchrist’s sample.

As the legal case gets sorted out, Beverly Hills is looking for more people to test their water. Betanzo hopes the village will take this opportunity to at least try to find some more homes with lead pipes.

Data from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

Betanzo says Beverly Hills hasn’t been testing enough homes with lead pipes. Besides the Gilchrist’s, they’ve only tested two homes with lead pipes for the last decade.

“So it's possible that if they sample more frequently lead service line homes, they might more regularly find lead in their drinking water,” she said.

Wilson says there are no other lead service lines that they know about. But Betanzo says she’d like to see the village search for homes with lead lines. She points to homes off Evergreen Road and in the older, eastern portion of the village where lead lines are more likely to be buried.

Lara Moehlman and Nisa Khan contributed to this story.

A previous version of the graph in this story stated eight homes were tested in 2008. Only five were tested that year. The correction has been made, and we regret the error.