Michigan Gov. Whitmer proposes spending $200M to replace lead water pipes

Copper pipe installation bringing water to Troy Hernandez's residence in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood on Friday, April 9, 2021. President Joe Bidens proposal to get rid of every lead water pipe in the country could have huge ramifications. That's especially true in communities where a large number of Black, Latino and low-income residents have been left effectively drinking from a lead straw. The problem persists decades after scientists established that lead consumption is unsafe at any level. Biden announced the pipe proposal as part of his $2.3 trillion infrastructure package. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar) (Shafkat Anowar, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

LANSING, Mich. – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday proposed spending $200 million in federal pandemic relief funding to replace lead water pipes across Michigan, where aging underground infrastructure was exposed by Flint's disaster.

The plan, if approved by the Legislature, would set aside $20 million to replace all of the lines in Benton Harbor in five years. The majority Black city in the state's southwestern corner has been exceeding the federal lead limit since 2018.

That year, Michigan began enforcing the nation’s strictest rules for lead in drinking water in the wake of the crisis in Flint, another impoverished city with a majority Black population. The regulations will result in replacing every lead service pipe statewide by 2041 unless a utility can show regulators it will take longer.

“Every Michigander deserves access to safe drinking water and every community deserves lead-free pipes,” the Democratic governor said in a statement.

The proposal would expand upon a water plan that Whitmer announced nearly a year ago, including $102 million to replace lead service lines in disadvantaged communities. In June, Republicans who control the Senate unveiled a $2.5 billion water infrastructure proposal that would be funded primarily with federal COVID-19 relief aid. Their plan includes $600 million for pipe replacements, triple what the governor is seeking.

Whitmer said more money is needed to replace all pipes but noted Michigan would get additional funds under President Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion infrastructure agenda, which is pending in Congress.

Michigan has an estimated 460,000 lead service lines, third-most in the U.S., according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Municipalities and water utilities have estimated the replacement cost could total $2.5 billion.

Flint became a national symbol of the longstanding threat from lead, which can disrupt children’s brain development, causing learning and behavior problems. Adults also can suffer nervous system and kidney damage.

The city switched its drinking water source from Detroit to the Flint River in 2014 as a temporary cost-saving move while being run by an emergency financial manager appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder. State environmental regulators advised local officials not to treat the river water with anti-corrosion additives. The river water scraped lead off aging pipes and plumbing fixtures, contaminating the supply.

Flint is in the final stages of replacing roughly 10,000 service lines under a 2017 settlement of a lawsuit filed by residents and nonprofit groups. The search-and-replace operation has involved more than 27,000 digs.

In Benton Harbor, a city of 9,700 residents, much of the water distribution system is around 100 years old. State and other government officials have taken steps such as making free filters available and securing additional funding for upgrades.

Mayor Marcus Muhammad said he was grateful for the proposed $20 million. But others in the community, while appreciative, said it is not enough.

The Rev. Edward Pickney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, said he and environmental groups on Thursday will ask the Environmental Protection Agency to provide bottled water or another source of safe drinking water — such as water trucks — until lead pipes are gone.

“We cannot wait one more day to seek help for our elders and our kids, who are our future,” he said.


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This story has been corrected to state that pipes must be replaced by 2041, not 2038, based on new information provided by the governor’s office.