Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration is nearing completion of the country’s strictest drinking water rules for lead, a plan that would eventually result in the replacement of all 500,000 lead service pipes in Michigan despite opposition from municipalities and utilities.
The proposed lead and copper rules, first announced in 2016 in the wake of the Flint water crisis and formally unveiled in 2017 , will take effect unless a legislative committee objects by June. Lawmakers are unlikely to intervene after successfully nudging the state Department of Environmental Quality to scale back parts of the proposal that could still cost $2.5 billion over decades — money that is expected to largely come from water customers.
The “action level” for lead would drop from 15 parts per billion, the federal limit, to 12 ppb in 2025 — higher than the 10 ppb threshold initially proposed. Underground lead service lines connecting water mains to houses and other buildings would be replaced by 2040 , unless a utility can show regulators it will take longer under a broader plan to repair and replace its water infrastructure.
The rules also would prohibit the partial replacement of lead service pipes except for emergency repairs; require preliminary and final inventories of the lines and other components of a water supply by 2020 and 2025; and ensure samples are taken at the highest-risk sites and with methods designed to more accurately detect lead. Additional changes are designed to verify that corrosion control is working and better educate the public about lead in water.
“We don’t believe the current lead and copper rule is protective enough or as protective as we thought it was,” said Eric Oswald, director of the state’s Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Division. The Republican governor, whose administration has been blamed for Flint’s emergency, calls the federal rules “dumb and dangerous.”
A coalition of local governments and water utilities remains unhappy with the pending state regulations, however. Leaders characterize them as an overreaction to the lead contamination in Flint that occurred when the city’s water source was switched in 2014 and not treated to prevent corrosion, enabling lead to leach from aging service lines and household fixtures.
Officials with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which represents municipalities across seven Detroit-area counties, question the necessity and cost effectiveness of a plan to require each system to replace on average 5 percent of its lead service pipes per year over a 20-year period starting no later than 2021. The replacements would be done even if lead is “not an issue, even when the sampling says it’s not an issue,” said SEMCOG engineer Kelly Karll.
She pointed to evidence that old paint is the most dangerous and widespread source of lead, and said corrosion control has not been an issue elsewhere like it was in Flint. It does not make sense, she said, to require pipe replacements on a fixed timeline that could conflict with other maintenance such as replacing water mains.
“Addressing it as a mandate of 5 percent a year ignores that whole asset management program,” Karll said.
The state notes the regulations provide flexibility to give communities more time to replace their lead pipes if they have an asset management plan, but opponents fear the Department of Environmental Quality will not be receptive to alternative timelines.
“In my experience in working with the DEQ, alternative programs are never less stringent. They’re always, ‘Oh, if you want to speed up your replacement, go ahead,’” Karll said.
Opponents include the Great Lakes Water Authority that services nearly 40 percent of Michigan water customers, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, Oakland County’s water resources commissioner and groups representing cities, townships and other utilities. They warn that requiring the full replacement of lead lines, not just the utility-owned portion near the street, would infringe on private property rights, spark legal challenges over imposing public fees for private purposes and not reach problematic fixtures inside residences. Researchers have found that removing just part of a line can actually make lead exposure worse.
Oswald downplayed concerns about legal issues, saying municipalities can get creative and doubting that residents would resist cities potentially taking ownership of the pipe under their yard. He also said regulators are cognizant that water systems such as Detroit with large numbers of lead pipes may need more than 20 years to replace all of them at an estimated cost of $5,000 per line.
The rules are pending before the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a panel of 10 lawmakers. They were initially submitted April 30, withdrawn May 3 at the panel’s request and resubmitted May 9 with changes such as setting a 12 ppb limit in 2025 instead of a 10 ppb threshold in 2022 and extending by a year the deadline to do a final infrastructure inventory.
The committee could push for more revisions before a June 7 deadline, but that seems unlikely.
“We’re actually very pleased with the administration working with us and making some of the changes,” said the chairman, Republican Sen. Jim Stamas of Midland.
He acknowledged local governments’ concerns about costs but said they would have years to prepare “to keep our citizens safe.”
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