State wants lead out of all pipes in 20 years

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING — The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has proposed replacing all lead water pipes in the state within the next 20 years.

“The new rules would require [municipalities] to start removing lead service lines at an average rate of 5 percent per year, which would get us to 100 percent over 20 years,” said Eric Oswald, director of DEQ’s Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Division.

The rules would also reduce the acceptable level of lead in drinking water from 15 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion, Oswald said. But the main objective of the changes is to get lead out of drinking water.

That has always been a goal, Oswald said, but it picked up steam when Flint’s water crisis brought lead in drinking water to the national stage.

“There’s always been a known risk there, but Flint really exposed it and brought national attention to the problem of lead lines and lead contamination or lead poisoning from drinking water pipes,” Janice Beecher, director of the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University.

One of the challenges facing replacement of lead service lines is funding. The state will not fund the line replacements, Oswald said. That responsibility will fall to the local governments.

“The state does have loan programs and grant programs that would be able to help out,” Oswald said. “But the majority of the burden would be on the local water supplies to remove those lines. We’re looking for the communities to be innovative in how they do that.”

Another problem facing the replacement is that often parts of the lines belong to the homeowner.

“The policy challenge is how do we get these lines replaced?” Beecher said. “And that’s complicated by the fact that in the majority of cases, those service lines that have the lead content are owned by the customer, not the utility, so it’s actually private property.”

This raises questions on the legality of having water systems pay to replace the lines on private property, said Tom Frazier, the legislative liaison for the Michigan Townships Association.

Oswald said there are some ways to get around this.

“The communities could pass an ordinance where they take the water line until it gets to the house so it all belongs to the community, similar to how gas lines are done,” he said.

Local units of government should focus on how they can best address public health issues, Frazier said.

“We’re in support of public health, but we don’t feel the rules as written the way they are now is the best way to do that,” Frazier said. “We think we should focus on replacing pipes in areas where there are elevated levels of lead and use funds to go after those sources, at least in the short term.”

Lansing has already replaced all of its lead water pipes. Starting in 2004, the city removed 12,150 active lead service pipes, finishing the project in Dec. 2016, said Amy Adamy, communications coordinator for the Lansing Board of Water and Light.

“When we started doing the removals, there was obviously a learning curve,” she said. “As we got better at it, we realized there was a better way to do it. It cut the price significantly, and it cut the time in half.”

Utilities from all over the country have since reached out to the Lansing Board of Water and Light, asking how it did it and what advice they can offer.

“We’ve been very helpful in providing resources and ideas,” Adamy said. “We had the learning curve, and we want to help them skip that part of it so they can immediately get to the and time saving methods so that it’s the most efficient work possible.”

The cost of the project was $44.5 million, Adamy said. The cost was built into the budget, spread out over 12 years.  

Good communication with customers throughout the process was a huge contributor to the success of the project, Adamy said.

Replacing all of the lead water pipes in the state would be a massive undertaking.

“You’re talking maybe 500,000 lead service lines in the state, in the billions of dollars to replace,” Oswald said. “It’s going to be an expensive proposition, but we want to get the lead out of the system.”

The draft proposal of the rules will be sent to the governor’s office where they will be put into legal format, Oswald said. The department hopes to open up public comment in mid-January and hold a public hearing at the end of that month. From there, the rules will be sent to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. It will then be up to the committee whether these rules take effect.

With Flint and other issues that have recently been brought to light, now is a good time to tackle this, he said.

“The public’s attention is on this, and I think we’ve got the backing to make this a priority,” Oswald said. “We may not go about it exactly how we think we’re going to, but I think the end result will be a rule that requires lead to be removed from the distribution center in one way or another.”