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By Alex Ebert
Michigan will impose the country’s strictest standards for lead levels in drinking water, requiring public utilities to replace all lead service lines.
The state’s action comes about three years after the contamination crisis in Flint became national news.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued the new rule June 14, dropping the state’s allowed lead level from 15 parts per billion to 12 parts per billion by 2025. It also will require utilities to pay for lead service line replacement at all homes in Michigan within the next 20 years. At least 5 percent of pipes must be replaced annually. That would cost an estimated $2.5 billion, according to the Michigan Municipal League.
“There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, so despite some troubling loopholes, these rules set an example other states and the Environmental Protection Agency could follow to address an issue plaguing water systems across the country,” Cyndi Roper, Michigan senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a June 14 statement. “These new protections can never make up for the disaster in Flint. And while they don’t solve the whole problem, they help ensure that other communities are better protected moving forward.”
The EPA has repeatedly delayed issuing federal standards on lead in drinking water, forcing Michigan to set its own requirements, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) said in a June 14 statement.
The service line replacements will begin in 2021. Public water systems that nearly meet the state’s “action level” for lead will have to replace 7 percent of their lead service lines annually and make public notifications to all customers about the lead levels.
The rule also mostly prohibits replacing old service lines with lead replacements, except in emergencies.
There are an estimated 500,000 lead services lines in Michigan, the municipal league said. Each costs about $5,000 to replace.
While public water systems support changing the public portion of lead service lines, the law also requires they replace the private portion of a service line—the part that goes from the local line to a user’s house—free of charge. Local governments wonder where they will come up with up the legal authority and $2.5 billion needed.
“We can either follow the Michigan Constitution and violate the rule, or violate the Constitution and follow the rule,” John LaMacchia, legislative associate with the Michigan Municipal League, told Bloomberg Environment June 14. “That is an awful position for communities to be involved in and will inevitably lead to litigation.”
The Catch-22, LaMacchia said, exists because the Michigan Constitution prohibits local governments from imposing taxes without citizen approval and requires some benefit to the fee-payer. State law also forbids using government funds for private benefit.
That means the local government paying to replace lead service lines on a resident’s private property could be sued by other residents who refuse to pay for it and say it’s an illegal tax. In recent years at least four settlements were struck between water providers and residents on similar unconstitutional-tax issues.
Without more funding, the new rule also could divert resources from other repairs.
“By putting all of the resources necessary to do this over a 20-year schedule it might actually jeopardize public health because we can’t be investing in water main replacements or other parts of the system,” he said.
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