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Michigan moves toward the toughest lead in drinking water rule in the nation

Feb 27, 2018

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is moving forward with proposed changes to the lead and copper rule. If approved, Michigan would hold the toughest regulations on lead in drinking water in the nation.

Among the policy revisions is a motion to lower the acceptable lead level in a community’s tap water. If the law passes, the “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb) of lead would drop to 10 ppb.

”Though no amount lead is safe in water, reducing that down is going to be very important,” says Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council.

A change in action level is just one of the proposed revisions. Another includes requiring that communities test for lead and copper annually rather than every three years. But the most controversial change to the current policy is a move to require every city in the state to replace every lead line, in full, at the expense of its water system.

“From a public health standpoint, this is something that we have to do,” Kolb says. “These regulations and rules provide a framework and a very reasonable time frame to allow communities to plan to get their lead service lines out of the ground.”

Right now, cities are only required to replace lead service lines, which are the underground pipes that connect a private home to a water main, as a last resort solution to issues of lead in water.  

Usually, cities replace just half of a lead service line—the half the city owns. The section closest to the home is private property.

Under the new rule, every city, even if its water samples show no current signs of lead issues, would have to create a plan to replace their full lead lines, at public expense. 

Some take issue with this proposed change.

Chuck Hersey, a consultant working on this issue for Oakland County, believes the rules are not a productive, or cost efficient, means to reducing exposure to lead. The $3,000-$5,000 lead line replacement is unnecessary, Hersey believes, if it’s not a currently identified problem.

He also takes legal issue with the requirement that public water systems pay for lead line replacement on private property.

“You’ve got to be surgical about the approach because from one property to the next, the issues are different,” Hersey says. “So, having one rule that sort of cuts across everything may sound good, but it’s a bit oversimplistic.”

A public hearing on the revisions is scheduled for March 1 in Lansing before the public comment period on the revisions closes on March 21.  From there, the state’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules will weigh in before Governor Snyder decides whether to sign it. Snyder has called the current federal lead and copper rule “dumb and dangerous.”

Nisa Khan and Lindsey Smith contributed to this story. It has been updated because MDEQ has extended the public comment period.