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Reporter’s Notebook: Clarifying FAQ after Beverly Hills lead in water story

Apr 10, 2018

A December copy of "The Villager" I grabbed from the lobby at the Beverly Hills village council office a few months ago.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Last week, Michigan Radio published a story about the Village of Beverly Hills, Michigan; a Detroit suburb located in southern Oakland County. The village currently has the highest 90th percentile for lead in water in the state.

The 90th percentile is a mathematical calculation used to determine whether a municipal water source is above the EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion. Michigan is considering lowering the action level to 10 ppb as part of sweeping changes proposed to the state’s version of the Lead and Copper Rule.

But having the highest 90th percentile doesn’t mean the Detroit suburb has the highest risk for lead in water. Not at all. In Beverly Hills, one extremely high sample, 228 parts per billion, made the village’s 90th percentile for lead in water 91 parts per billion.

Since that story, I’ve had residents, an interest group, and an academic working at a state university reach out to me for more information. The lead in water issue also came up at the village council meeting last week.

The Lead and Copper Rule is one of the most complicated rules U.S. EPA has on the books. The confusion over how to enforce and interpret the rule, in some ways, allowed the state to drag its feet when Flint exceeded the “action level” for lead in water.

So it’s no surprise to me when people are confused by or misinformed about aspects of it, even if they are officials in authority. While I’m not an expert, I have worked diligently to understand the effects the Flint water crisis has had on the state’s implementation of the Lead and Copper Rule.

In an attempt to provide a more complete picture of the lead water tests in Beverly Hills, Michigan Radio is releasing more documents obtained from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality through the Freedom of Information Act. My hope is that more information will answer a number of questions from residents and academics who are interested, and perhaps prevent some anxiety and misinformation.

When did the village notify residents? Why am I only learning about this now?

The village did send out “public education materials” outlined in the Lead and Copper Rule. The notice went out in the December 2017 issue of The Village, the city’s official newsletter. It's on page 11. There was also some language on utility bills that went to residents, and Beverly Hills village council has discussed it at previous council meetings.

When did Beverly Hills begin testing for lead in water?

The village of Beverly Hills has been sampling for lead in water since 1992, right after the federal Lead and Copper Rule passed.

How are the homes that are sampled selected?

Beverly Hills selects which homes it tests. The state initially approved the list in 1992. But it has changed since then for a number of reasons. Mostly, a resident on the list has to be willing to participate and sometimes that changes, or people aren’t available, so new homes are added.

Water systems are supposed to prioritize homes considered to be at higher risk for lead; particularly homes with lead service lines. If a city has lead service lines (those are the pipes that connect people's homes to the water main), at least half of the homes tested should have lead lines. Typically, Beverly Hills hasn’t done that. No more than 2 of 5 homes the village tested in a given testing period were listed as having lead service lines.

Since 1992, the village has tested 11 homes in total. Three of those homes are listed as having a lead service line. One of those homes, with the high result in 2017, had the lead line replaced. Another one of those lead line homes was built in 1976 according to Zillow; although not impossible, that’s typically too new of a home to have a lead line. It is unclear from the Lead and Copper Reports why Beverly Hills dropped that home off the sampling list in 2008.  

Before 2017, did any of the samples come back positive for lead?

Like almost every municipality connected to Detroit water (now called the Great Lakes Water Authority), lead levels in water samples in Beverly Hills fell once Detroit started using a corrosion control chemical in the mid-1990s. Before 2017, the highest lead in water sample recorded in Beverly Hills was 9 ppb. It was taken in 1992 from a home with a copper service line.

I wanted to fact check some things about the village’s water tests before I wrote the story. So I obtained all of the village’s reports through a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

You can look at all those past reports, or download the excel spreadsheet I used to inform my work here.

Why is Beverly Hills testing so few homes?

Beverly Hills has taken a total of 66 lead in water samples since 1992. When the Lead and Copper Rule first passed, municipalities were required to test every year or more, but if results aren’t high, most cities move to a reduced monitoring schedule. That means they only have to test once every three years instead of annually. If a city goes above the “action level” or changes a water source, more sampling is required.

The number of homes a municipal water system has to test is determined by the number of people it serves. The EPA breaks it down into three sized groups; small, medium and large. But there’s another factor that one must be aware of when considering Beverly Hills.

Beverly Hills is only required to test water for lead at five homes every three years. In contrast, Benton Harbor, which is comparable in size, is required to test 30 homes every three years. The difference is, Benton Harbor isn’t on the Great Lakes Water Authority’s system. Cities in the GLWA system don’t have to test as many homes because of an agreement MDEQ, the U.S. EPA, and the city of Detroit worked out in the early 1990s. You can read more about that agreement here.

But that monitoring schedule will change. MDEQ spokeswoman Tiffany Brown says the U.S. EPA "recently notified DEQ of their decision to rescind" the federal agency's approval of GLWA's modified schedule. She says the EPA, MDEQ and GLWA are working together to figure out that schedule now.

That change could affect more than 100 water systems in metro Detroit that buy GLWA water. It would mean cities like Warren, Livonia, Dearborn, Westland would have to test many more houses. Smaller municipal water systems, like Beverly Hills, Eastpointe and Lincoln Park will too.

How many lead lines does Beverly Hills have? Where are they?

Like more 60% of cities on GLWA, Beverly Hills doesn’t know exactly how many or where lead lines are buried. The village wasn’t incorporated until the 1950s and the old tap card records don’t always say what material the service line is made of, Village Manager Chris Wilson says.  

Last fall Wilson said it is “very unusual” to come across lead pipes in the village. When roadwork is done and they come across them, the village will replace its portion of a lead line (most municipalities share ownership of the pipe with the homeowner) and offer to replace the owner’s portion at the owner’s expense.

Wilson said most people do take that offer and get the entire pipe replaced. When pressed last fall to give me a ballpark number of how many lead lines the village may have remaining, Wilson said around a couple dozen. In January, he said there is only one other lead line the village knows of.

The bottom line is, the village doesn’t know for sure. But judging from experience in the field, the age of most of the homes in the village, and the number of lead lines in surrounding communities, it’s unlikely the village has a lot of them.

How do I know if I have a lead service line?

NPR built a great app for that. Get your phone and a flashlight and head down to your basement (in most cases) to find out.

How do I get my water tested?

The village is offering to test people’s water now. You can call the village office at (248) 646-6404. Because of the action level exceedance, Beverly Hills must to do two rounds of sampling in 2018.

For each round, 60 homes must be sampled. At least 30 of those homes should have lead service lines, if the village can find that many. Otherwise, homes built before the late 1980s with lead solder on the joints would take priority.

You can also contact the state directly for water testing. Processing one sample for lead in water costs $18, according to the MDEQ’s fee schedule.

Is the village suing the state over it's lead results?

Yes. MDEQ already declined an administrative appeal. Now the village is asking an Oakland County Circuit Court judge to invalidate the high sample that threw the village over the action level.  As of this morning, there is no hearing date set in the case.