Why are so many Michigan water supply systems finding lead? They look harder

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Recent violators include mid-sized towns like Royal Oak, small towns like Clare, and small vendors, including an apartment complex in the town of Hermansville, on the Upper Peninsula, which has failed six lead tests since. 2016.

And not all violations pose an equal threat to public health: in Royal Oak, for example, less than six percent of households get their water from a pipe. In Hamtramck, on the other hand, it is closer to 90%.

Rise in violations “shows how people had no idea” of lead risks in their water systems before Michigan’s new rules forced more public disclosure, said Elin Warn Betanzo , water engineer and former head of the EPA who now heads the drinking water engineering company council.

“They had no information reaching them, and there was no obligation for the water systems to even know where the lead service lines were,” Betanzo said.

Some 350 Michigan water systems, from Baldwin to White Cloud to a host of apartment complexes and subdivisions, have just completed their first round of sampling since the new rules took effect. The results will arrive over the next few weeks, which means Michigan could soon see even more exceedances.

To be clear, Benton Harbor’s chronic lead problems are a different category: they arose before Michigan’s testing protocol changed, and continued unabated for the next three years, even after authorities started infusing the water with anti-corrosion chemicals intended to prevent lead from entering the water. leaching of pipes.

State officials have said the chemicals work, but it will take time to bring lead levels below the legal limit.

But as Hamtramck and Wayne point out, these chemicals are not a quick fix. Both cities get their water from the Great Lakes Water Authority, which has long injected anti-corrosion chemicals into its water.

Oswald, of EGLE, said the agency is now working with the authority to change its chemical formula in hopes that it will become more effective.

In addition to stepping up testing, the new rules impose a 20-year deadline for every Michigan water supplier to remove lead pipes from their distribution system, with stricter deadlines for those whose violations are not. corrected by treating the water with chemicals designed to prevent lead from escaping from pipes.

But the recent wave of violations has sparked new calls for heads of state to bring in cash so communities with many lead lines can move faster to get the lead.

Michigan has more than 1,000 public water systems, many of which have at least lead pipes.

Water providers have been banned from installing new lead pipes since 1986, meaning older communities tend to have the most lead service lines. And because many of Michigan’s older cities have also steadily lost population to newer suburbs, many are facing declining incomes. This makes it difficult to dispose of lead lines which can cost $ 5,000 or more each to replace.

Water providers have long decried the state’s lead pipe replacement directive as an unfunded mandate and urged lawmakers to contribute state money to help cover the cost. The recent wave of violations has renewed these cries.

Hamtramck, where nearly half of its 28,433 residents live in poverty and the city only recently emerged from state-designated emergency management due to budget issues, must find the money to cut thousands of lead lines. At the current rate, said Managing Director Kathy Angerer, it will take more than a decade.

She is counting on state lawmakers to free up money for Hamtramck as they did for Benton Harbor after activists complained to the EPA last month that Michigan was not responding adequately to the three-year lead crisis in the southwestern Michigan city.

“The fast-track plan for Benton Harbor,” said Angerer, “is the right plan for other communities.”

Billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief and more on the way if Congress passes a federal infrastructure spending bill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they hope to answer the call.

Both sides’ spending proposals contain significant sums to help local communities replace lead pipes, including $ 600 million in a Republican proposal sponsored by Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, and $ 200 million in a September proposal from Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Many local communities are also sitting on large sums of stimulus money from US federal bailout law that could be spent on drinking water infrastructure, but are reluctant to spend the money on priorities that could be ripe for state or federal investment.

Abby Mitch, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said she expects Bumstead’s bill to get off the committee “fairly quickly” but has not proposed time frame for it to receive a full Senate vote.

Lawmakers will also have to reconcile the Senate proposal with Whitmer’s proposed budget, but Mitch noted that Republican lawmakers and the Democratic governor “generally agree” on how the money should be spent.

Calling the lead-in-water crisis in Michigan cities “an infrastructure crisis that has been brewing for decades,” Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy told Bridge Michigan this week that Hamtramck is also eligible to $ 3 million from the state’s Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund to get a jump on removing its lead pipes.

The continued water quality violations in Manchester and Wayne are somewhat less urgent: less than one in nine homes in these communities is connected to pipes.

Beyond state funding proposals, Congress could vote this week on a $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure spending bill that includes $ 15 billion to replace lead service lines . The proposed separate budget of $ 3.5 trillion reconciliation invoice includes an additional $ 30 billion to remove the guidelines, though lawmakers would have to cut the bill to as little as $ 1.5 trillion in order to get enough “yes” votes to pass it.

Although expensive, the removal of lead lines saves money in the long run avoiding future costs associated with lead exposure, such as increased health care, education and social assistance needs.

The savings are much greater if the replacement of lead pipes is combined with efforts to reduce lead paint, which is the common source of lead exposure in children, especially in cities with a housing stock. older. (Lead paint was banned in the United States in 1978.)


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