Michigan could become the first state to get rid of lead pipes for drinking water thanks to new regulations that are stricter than the federal standards for the toxic metal.
Gov. Rick Snyder (R) pushed the rewriting of the rules in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, where city residents were exposed to higher levels of lead in 2014 after state and local officials bungled enforcement of federal regulations.
Under Safe Drinking Water Act rules, cities are supposed to monitor lead levels in water samples taken from kitchen faucets, and states are supposed to make sure they do it. Michigan failed in that responsibility, which Snyder admitted after independent testing in 2015 revealed elevated lead levels in Flint’s water and in its children’s blood.
The Environmental Protection Agency knew about the problem before then, but didn’t take action against the city under the federal Lead and Copper Rule because that’s how lax the rule is. The EPA has been working on an updated version of the rule for years. Current Administrator Scott Pruitt has delayed the process further.
“As a state, we could no longer afford to wait on needed changes at the federal level, so Michigan has stepped up to give our residents a smarter, safer rule ― one that better safeguards water systems in all communities,” Snyder said Thursday in a press release.
Under the state’s new rules, public water utilities will have to replace all 500,000 lead service lines for drinking water across Michigan. The replacement process will start in 2021 and stretch over 20 years, with about 5 percent of lead lines switched out each year. Utilities will have to pay to replace the service lines they own.
The new rules also require more rigorous sampling of household tap water and set a slightly lower lead threshold for triggering faster pipe replacement. Second samples will be collected at sites served by lead service lines, and public education efforts will be expanded. Michigan’s public water systems must submit a complete inventory and verification methodology by 2025.
“Getting lead services lines out of the ground is the most effective way to reduce the potential for dangerous water contamination,” Cyndi Roper, Michigan senior policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement on Thursday.
Concerns have been raised about the cost of implementing the tougher rules. Digging up and replacing a single lead service line can cost thousands of dollars. Flint is currently replacing its pipes with the help of nearly $100 million from the federal government.
“This rule is an important step forward in protecting all our drinking water from lead contamination,” Bob Allison, deputy director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Now the onus is on our state legislature to craft a bold, comprehensive plan to fund lead pipe removal without making drinking water unaffordable.”
Drinking water can become contaminated with lead if it touches lead pipes or plumbing materials, according to the EPA. No level of lead is safe, and lead exposure can affect children’s IQ and cause anemia and kidney damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead paint and dust generally pose bigger exposure risks than drinking water.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, many American cities actually required houses to be connected to water mains via lead pipes, despite known health dangers, because the metal is malleable and durable. In more recent years, public health officials have learned that even tiny amounts of lead exposure can harm human health.
But no state other than Michigan has taken such an aggressive approach to drinking water safety.
“With these more stringent standards, Michigan will serve as a role model to other states looking to improve their own public health protections,” Snyder said.
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