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Michigan regulators to water systems: Begin plans to replace all lead service lines

Mar 28, 2016

A worker holds a lead service line removed from a home in Flint.
Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The state of Michigan is asking all water systems to come up with plans to find and replace lead pipes in their communities, even the portions of water service lines that are on private property, which are traditionally the responsibility of the homeowner.

In a letter sent earlier this month, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality makes several recommendations to community water system operators.

One is that water systems make sure they know where lead service lines are. According to the U.S. EPA, water systems were supposed to compile these so-called “materials inventories” back when the federal Lead and Copper Rules was first passed in the 1990s. Officials with the U.S. EPA say this information is “foundational” to making sure cities are complying with the Lead and Copper Rule, designed to protect the public from lead exposure in drinking water.

In Michigan, the DEQ doesn’t know how many total lead service lines there are.

“I think it is fair to say that DEQ doesn’t have an exhaustive list,” MDEQ Interim Director Keith Creagh said, “I think it’s not fair to say that the local municipalities may not know.”

But preliminary research done by Michigan Radio shows many systems don’t know exactly how many lead service lines remain in their communities, or their records are inaccurate or incomplete.

There are more than 1,400 community water systems, according to MDEQ.

MDEQ is asking water system operators to compile and/or review the inventories they have. They’re also asking systems “widely distribute” information about the location of lead service lines and sampling results for lead and copper.

Next, the state wants water systems to make sure they’re testing for lead at the right homes. Those are homes at highest risk of lead exposure.

The state is also recommending cities across the state start developing plans to “identify and replace all lead components” in the distribution system, (emphasis added by MDEQ) even if those components are on private property.

MDEQ advises water systems against doing partial line replacements, where a city will replace a water service line up to a homeowner's property line, but then leaves the existing pipe from that property line into the home.

“It is recognized that this will require significant time and capital outlay and cause many logistical issues, but a plan should be started and potential funding and tools should be explored,” the letter said.

MDEQ's letter comes in response to the U.S. EPA's stepped up enforcement of the Lead and Copper Rule, which was announced late last month. That increased enforcement is a direct result of the water crisis in Flint.