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If Michigan changed its lead drinking water standard, some cities would be out of compliance

Apr 18, 2016

Governor Rick Snyder is backing tougher standards for lead in drinking water. Cities are still figuring out what any proposed changes to drinking water regulations would mean for them.

If lawmakers were to enact the changes, it would make Michigan’s standard the toughest in the country.

If the “action level” standard for lead in water was lowered from 15 parts per billion to 10 ppb, the change could put some cities, like Kalamazoo, over the allowable limit.

In 2014, Kalamazoo’s 90th percentile calculation, which determines a water system’s lead level according to the federal Lead and Copper Rule, was 13 ppb. Many cities, including Kalamazoo, do this type of testing every three years. In 2011, the city's level was only 5.5 ppb. But it has measured 9 pbb on two other occasions in the 2000s.

“We would take whatever steps are necessary to stay in compliance,” if the standard were lowered, Deputy City Manager Jeff Chamberlain said.

Marysville, a small city in Michigan's Thumb, would also have lead levels above the proposed standard if it were lowered to 10 pbb. The last testing the city did showed its 90th percentile at 12 ppb.

Marysville’s water and wastewater Supervisor Bari Wrubel isn't against lowering the standard, but hopes lawmakers consider the science first.

“As long as it isn’t really just a knee-jerk reaction to kind of appease the public that they’re taking action,” Wrubel said, “If the science is behind it, and it all makes perfect sense, then there’s really no problem with that.”

Marysville already goes beyond the requirements of the federal lead and copper rule by only sampling homes known to have lead service lines. The rule requires only half of samples come from homes with lead lines, if a city has them.

“We went for, we don’t want to say 'artificially high,' but we wanted to make sure that the 20 homes we tested that we were hitting homes that had a lead-based service, because we didn’t want to have any false negatives,” Wrubel said.

Wrubel estimates there are only roughly 150 homes left in the city with lead service lines.

Kalamazoo has more than a couple thousand. As for the proposed requirement that cities replace all lead lines within the next 10 years, Chamberlain says Kalamazoo does not have that kind of money in its budget.

“Currently we remove them on a case-by-case basis, or when we are doing a water construction project in the area. Replacing all lines will cost millions of dollars. We would look to the state and federal government for financial assistance if the goal was to remove all within 10 years,” he said.

A spokeswoman from Detroit’s Water and Sewer Department said it was premature to comment on the proposed changes. Detroit has the most lead service lines in Michigan -- an estimated 100,000.

Officials from Grand Rapids, which has an estimated 17,000-18,000 lead service lines remaining, said they welcome the proposals.

“The Water System continues to provide its customers with the highest quality water with lead levels at record lows (2.2 pbb) — well within even the new proposed levels,” Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong said. “These recommendations are positive steps forward that will ultimately improve water quality across the state.”

Grand Rapids has been replacing lead service lines as part of ongoing construction projects for years. But many of those have only been partial line replacements, because the city only takes responsibility for the side of the water line that’s on public property.

Studies have shown these partial line replacements are not as effective at preventing lead leaching into drinking water, and could actually make levels spike temporarily. The state recently recommended against partial replacements.

"Grand Rapids is in compliance with many of these recommendations; yet, it is already examining how to comply with and adopt all of the recommendations' best practices within the proposed timeframe,” DeLong wrote.