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Risky, common lead pipe replacement practice gets a second look in Michigan

Nov 16, 2017

Because of the Flint water crisis, several Michigan cities are making long term plans to replace old lead water pipes that connect homes to the water main.

That is good for public health, but well-meaning municipal water operators can actually make lead exposure worse if they’re not careful.

There’s a mix of lead and copper pipes buried near the corner of Trinity and Florence in a neighborhood on Detroit’s northwest side. When I visited a month ago the block was lined with nice, two story brick homes and orange construction barrels. It smelled like diesel.

Detroit Water and Sewer Department spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh waved at the guys near a backhoe at the corner.

“So they’ve already put the new water main in so they’re going house by house to replace the partial, the city-owned side of the lead service pipe,” Peckinpaugh said.

A lead line is partially replaced in Detroit.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

As Detroit rips up the road and replaces old sewers and water mains, they’re also figuring out where lead water pipes are still hiding. Crews cut the lead pipe, take it out, and replace it with copper.

But not the entire pipe. Just the part the city owns. From the road to the shutoff valve near the sidewalk. The rest of the pipe going into the home, is private property.

Leaving half the lead pipe in the ground is known as a partial replacement. And despite some controversy, it’s been standard practice in Michigan and across the country.

What’s not been standard practice, is handing out filters to people.

That’s what Detroit is doing to lower the risk of lead exposure when it does partials.

Patty Parzych got a filter. She lives in what was once her grandmother’s home with her husband, and their black Chihuahua, Auggie.

Most of the homes on Parzych’s block were built in the 1930s and 40s, so she’s not shocked she has a lead line.

“I would assume or I would hope that if in the process of replacing all of the pipes, if they did find some sort of significant problem or danger, that they would address it and make people aware of it,” she said, “and of course that’s putting a lot of trust and giving a lot of credit to the powers that be."

Parzych is using her filter. But she says she and her neighbors have wondered, how long they should be filtering their water?

The science of partial replacements

Any time you disturb a lead pipe, all that digging and jack-hammering and sawing can jiggle tiny pieces of rust and scale inside the pipe. Those lead laden pieces flake off into the tap water.

That’s one part of the problem with partial replacements. But then, a city usually replaces its half of the old lead pipe with a new copper one.

Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards released a 2015 study on what can happen next.

A removed lead line in Battle Creek, MI.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

“When you connect lead to copper, unfortunately there’s an electrochemical reaction that occurs that effectively pumps lead into the water," Edwards said. It's called a galvanic cell. It would not form unless there's a partial replacement.

How much lead is released into tap water from this reaction can vary. The study found that the rate of water flow and other chemical factors can make a big difference in the lead levels after a partial replacement, adding to the complexity of studying the potential health implications.

The lead can fall off either dissolved in water like sugar or salt, or it can come off in chunks like little pieces of lead rust," Edwards said.

Exactly when these chunks of lead break free is also unpredictable, and can be easily missed in a single water test. Edwards found these erratic lead releases can last for years.

That's why Edwards says he tells anyone with a lead pipe, even a partial lead pipe, to always use a filter.

Pregnant woman, children, and especially formula fed infants are more vulnerable to the effects of lead in water. Ideally, Edwards says cities would just replace the whole thing at once. But he is encouraged that Detroit is handing out filters, even if they do only last 3 months.

“Legally,” he explains, “these water companies can come in and disturb this centuries old hazard, releasing hazardous waste levels of lead into your drinking water and poisoning you and your family without even having the need to tell you about it," Edwards said.

"Anything is better than what we’ve been doing.”

The safest option? Full lead line replacement

After many discussions, city officials in Grand Rapids made the switch from partial lead replacements to full, at least on a pilot basis.

Grand Rapids assistant water system manager Wayne Jernberg says city officials looked at the numbers, talked to the lawyers, and figured it was worth it for the city to cover the cost of the full replacement.

Jernberg says, “Sometimes we have to pick up the pieces and do what’s right regardless of the sins of the past. And you know, in my personal opinion, that lead service piping was a sin. So we’re trying to make it right.”

When a full replacement doesn’t cost anything extra, homeowners are eager to sign up. Grand Rapids spent about a half million dollars in public money replacing more than 200 private lead pipes to protect public health. Only one homeowner refused.

But not every city’s budget is, shall we say, as flush, as Grand Rapids.

Why do partials? Cheaper and less liability

In Detroit, you really cannot ignore the cost. Detroit Water and Sewerage Department deputy director Palencia Mobley says the obvious problem is the city and many Detroiters just don’t have that extra money.

Palencia Mobley, deputy director of Detroit’s Water and Sewer Department.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

“The bottom line is - how would you fund it?”

Mobley estimates there are between 100,000 and 125,000 lead lines in the ground – more than any other city in the state. They believe it could cost up to $500 million to replace them all.

Faced with that cost, Mobley is wondering, what are Detroit’s realistic options? Will filters alone work? Could the city apply for a low interest state drinking water loan program, that recently expanded to cover full lead line replacements?

“Those are the questions we’re trying to answer so that we don’t just make some haphazard decisions that could have large ramifications in the long term,” says Mobley.

It’s not just the cost either. 

Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

For Dearborn DPW Director Jim Murray, it’s also about the potential liability of doing the work inside someone’s home.

“Whenever anybody gets a crack in their ceiling when we’re doing a project out in the street, they say we’re responsible for damaging their house," Murray said. "If we’re actually physically intruding into their house it creates another problem. I don’t know. We haven’t got through that yet.”

Dearborn is still doing partial lead replacements. But Dearborn is doing something no one else is. They’ve instituted this super complex program to try to warn and protect residents who are getting partials.

"We agree that (partial replacements) are a problem and they need to be addressed. As operators we need to step up and manage our systems in a way that recognizes this information," Murray said.

Murray says that's why Dearborn took on this major program to help mitigate the potential spike in lead levels after a partial replacement. It involves sampling before and after the work, a bunch of water flushing, and free bottled water.

The extra effort, above and beyond what the regulations require, cost Dearborn just under $90,000 this year. Labor costs are the largest portion of that cost.

Murray estimates it would cost Dearborn around $28 million to fully replace Dearborn's roughly 7,500 remaining lead lines.

With the new flushing program and a major push to educate people, Murray thinks Dearborn can continue to safely do partial lead replacements.

The state, however, is considering banning them.

Murray is not thrilled about that. He worries a potential state ban is more politically motivated, a knee jerk reaction to the Flint water crisis.

“I think coming up with recommendations that the rest of us have to deal with when we don’t have that kind of problem and we don’t have any indication that we’re going to have that kind of problem... to tell us how we need to do this, I think that would be wrong," Murray said.

"We agree that (partial replacements) are a problem and they need to be addressed and as operators we need to step up and manage our systems in a way that recognizes this information," Murray said.

Murray is not alone in this sentiment. I talked to dozens of water operators about a potential ban on partials replacements. They’re also worried about a huge price tag for something they simply don’t think would be a major problem in their own towns.

The state is set to release all the details of its wide-reaching proposal to strengthen lead in water rules. A public meeting is set for later this month in Lansing.