Gov. Rick Snyder's administration is planning to require the replacement of every underground lead service pipe in Michigan within 20 years while delaying by four years a deadline to implement the nation's toughest lead limit for drinking water, in the wake of the Flint lead crisis.
Under draft rules that environmental regulators want to finalize early next year, Michigan's "action level" for lead in drinking water would gradually drop to 10 parts per billion by 2024, not 2020 as initially proposed. The current federal threshold of 15 ppb has been criticized by the governor as too weak.
State officials plan to give communities 20 years to replace an estimated 500,000-plus lead service lines in a state with the third-most in the U.S. That is longer than a 10-year window that had been envisioned when Snyder first called for tougher lead restrictions more than 1½ years ago.
The Associated Press reviewed a summary of the draft rules Tuesday in advance of a public information session to be hosted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on Wednesday night. The proposal — which was revised due to feedback from water utilities, environmental groups, health experts and others in recent months — is subject to change before and after it is officially released for public comment in January and a hearing is held, potentially late that month.
Eric Oswald, director of the Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Division, said in a phone interview that "the ultimate goal here is to get lead out of the system" by pushing municipalities to replace the old lead pipes running from water mains to houses or else face "difficult" new operational rules including stricter sampling requirements.
Rather than mandating that a minimum number of lines be replaced each year, the draft rules call for utilities to replace 5 percent on average each year over 20 years. That provides flexibility in case it makes sense to do more replacements in a single year in conjunction with a water main or other large project, Oswald said.
Snyder initially outlined lead proposals in April 2016, months after apologizing for his administration's role in the Flint water emergency. Lead leaching from old pipes and fixtures caused elevated levels in children and left residents to drink and bathe with bottled or filtered water. Experts suspect a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak was tied to the improperly treated river water, too.
The Republican governor, who has said the federal lead and copper rule is "dumb and dangerous," followed up in March by saying he would implement some of his plans through administrative rule-making, while others would need legislative approval.
Oswald said there has been "a lot of pushback" against replacing lead pipes, which would be expensive and cost thousands of dollar per line. Under a legal settlement in Flint, the state and federal governments are spending up to $97 million alone to replace lead and galvanized-steel lines that bring water into 18,000 homes.
There is little willingness in the GOP-led Legislature to provide state funding for local pipe replacements elsewhere.
Detroit has so many of the lines — possibly 125,000 — that it may need more than 20 years to replace them, Oswald said.
Under the draft rules, utilities would fully replace all lead service lines at their expense, though the cost would be passed along to customers. A homeowner could decline to allow the replacement of the private portion of the pipe, which is typically between the house and sidewalk.
That is a shift from an earlier plan to prohibit partial replacement of lines. Researchers have found that removing just part of a line can actually make lead exposure worse.
Oswald said banning partial replacements is "not feasible" due to property rights issues, but he added there would be "very tight controls" if a homeowner refuses to let a line be fully replaced.
Another initiative being pursued through the rule-making process would require water systems to inventory their infrastructure by 2020 and follow up with a "verified" inventory by 2024. It is partly an attempt to get a definitive estimate on the number of lead services lines, which Oswald said are a "shot in the dark" now.
The rules also would trigger faster notice to residents in households with particularly high levels of lead — 40 parts per billion or above.