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Michigan pushes to have nation's toughest lead water rules

Nov 13, 2017

Public and political pressure from the Flint water crisis is beginning to shape new, tougher water regulations in Michigan - and other states are taking notice.

If passed, they’d be the strongest such measures in the country.

Two years ago, when news broke about the Flint water crisis, lots of people wondered if Michigan’s governor would resign. That’s because emails show Rick Snyder’s top aides had concerns about Flint’s water long before pediatricians and scientists proved there was a huge problem.

But Snyder is still governor. And he’s worked to shift some of the blame to the federal Lead and Copper Rule. He’s always calling it “dumb and dangerous.”

Last year, Snyder begged Congress to fix it, saying, “If the dumb and dangerous federal Lead and Copper Rule is not changed, then this tragedy will befall another American cities. Professor Edwards has been sounding this alarm for years.”

Professor Edwards is Marc Edwards with Virginia Tech. He’s one of the people responsible for exposing the water crisis in Flint and in Washington D.C.

The alarm Edwards has been sounding is that there are too many loopholes in the Lead and Copper Rule - a rule that’s been in place for more than 25 years.

"We got this false sense of security from it," says Edwards. "And behind the scenes these public health agencies these scientists and engineers we pay to protect us were really betraying us."

In Flint, sampling loopholes allowed officials to downplay the health risk. While at the same time, pediatricians were seeing a spike in kids’ lead levels.

In Washington, officials skirted the intent of the law by spending millions but replacing only parts of the lead water pipes buried underground. That caused even more lead exposure.

"Behind the scenes, these public health agencies these scientists and engineers we pay to protect us were really betraying us." - Dr. Marc Edwards

Then there’s the law’s “Action Level” of 15 parts per billion.

That’s the level of lead that’s acceptable in a water system before residents are alerted.

But 15 parts per billion is not a health-based standard.

No amount of lead in water is considered safe. Instead, 15 parts per billion is a water treatment standard set to show how corrosive water is to the plumbing.

But Ronnie Levin spent decades as an EPA scientist and says that in 1991, it was a big fight to get any rule passed.

“It was a huge win. Huge. And people had told me it would never happen but it did," says Levin.

Levin retired from the EPA this summer and is working for Harvard.

EPA’s major revamp of the Lead and Copper Rule has been underway for several years. But Levin says the agency took a “dark turn” after Donald Trump took office. There appears to be less momentum to closing well-known loopholes.

“Right now I am very nervous because everything is on the table,” says Levin. “Monitoring within people’s houses, what the lead levels are going to be, what the requirements are, how many samples where and what it means.”

So not only is the existing rule “dumb and dangerous,” but also Levin worries some of its basic protections will be scraped.

She actually hopes the EPA will delay the revisions again.

An EPA spokeswoman would not commit to a timeframe.

Congressman Dan Kildee is a Democrat from Flint and last month told EPA administrator Scott Pruitt how frustrated he is with the delay.

Kildee said, “There's no excuse no matter who's in office for having regulations that don't protect public health. If we don't force this issue, what happened in Flint will be repeated.”

Michigan’s efforts to update the so-called “dumb and dangerous” rule are in full swing.

Draft rules obtained by Michigan Radio would lower the “action level” for lead in water and require more sampling.

The state may also require water systems to replace lead water pipes buried underground… even if the water doesn’t show high lead levels and even if they’re on private property.

Taking preemptive measures

While the rules aren’t finalized yet, some Michigan cities are getting the hint.

Grand Rapids resident Charles Smith is happy city workers are tearing up his yard to replace lead pipes.

"We’re like Flint," says Smith. "Flint has all lead lines and I think that’s probably why they’re doing it now cause they heard all about Flint and they’re 'uh-oh.'"

Certainly Grand Rapids is no Flint. It does not have high lead levels.

But Smith’s hunch is spot on.

This summer, Grand Rapids spent about a half a million dollars replacing 200 lead lines on private property to protect public health. And yes, it’s because of Flint.