Michigan pushes nation's toughest lead rules

Posted at 9:37 AM, Apr 15, 2016

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan would have the toughest lead-testing rules in the nation and require the replacement of all underground lead service pipes in the state under a sweeping plan Gov. Rick Snyder and a team of water experts will unveil Friday in the wake of Flint's water crisis.

Other proposals include requiring utilities to test all schools, day care centers, nursing homes and similar facilities — not just some people's houses — and the mandatory disclosure of lead plumbing in home sales and rental contracts, according to a document provided to The Associated Press by the governor's office before the announcement.

Under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules, water systems across the country must take steps to control corrosion if lead concentrations exceed 15 parts per billion in more than 10 percent of customer taps sampled. Michigan would move to a limit of 10 parts per billion by 2020 — in line with the World Health Organization's standard — under recommendations to be made in Flint to a Snyder-created committee working on long-term fixes related to the city's lead-tainted water crisis.

"The federal Lead and Copper Rule needs to be improved immediately. It's dumb and dangerous and in Michigan we aren't going to wait for the federal government to fix it anymore," the Republican governor, who has apologized for his administration's failures in the Flint disaster, said in a statement to the AP.

The impoverished city of nearly 100,000 residents is under a monthslong state of emergency. Residents are urged to use faucet filters or bottled water until damaged pipes are effectively recoated with anti-corrosion chemicals that were not used for 18 months after Flint temporarily switched water sources to the local river in 2014 while under state financial management.

"We gathered the right group of experts to come up with a solution that we need for Michigan but that can be translated nationwide," said Mike Zimmer, Snyder's cabinet director and a panel member who helped devise the proposed changes with a workgroup that includes water experts such as Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards.

Zimmer cited a recent AP analysis of EPA data that found that nearly 1,400 water systems serving 3.6 million Americans exceeded the federal lead standard at least once from January 2013 through September 2015. Just a fraction of schools and day care centers nationwide are required to check for lead because most receive their water from municipal systems that test at other locations.

Just this week, Detroit's school district reported elevated levels of lead and copper in nearly a third of its elementary schools — testing that was prompted by the crisis in Flint.

A key goal is to make Michigan's lead and copper rule "citizen-centric," Zimmer said, by implementing more stringent, broader notification requirements, requiring public education campaigns and forming state and local advisory commissions to give the public a say in water protection. Water systems would have two days instead of the current 30 to tell individual customers that their lead levels exceed the action level. Households with particularly high levels — 40 parts per billion or above — would receive blood testing.

Testing would occur yearly. Loopholes would be removed to ensure enough samples are taken and that sampling protocols are consistent.

Larger utilities now above the federal lead limit must take further steps to "optimize" their corrosion control treatment to prevent lead from leaching into the water like it did in Flint.

The proposal would require each system to fully replace old pipes within 10 years unless the state authorizes more time. Partial replacement of a line — which can occur when a utility owns a portion near the street while the rest is the homeowner's responsibility — would be prohibited. Researchers have found that removing just part of a line can actually make lead exposure worse.

The Snyder administration is still studying which proposals it could implement single-handedly and which would need legislative approval.

It is unclear how much the proposal will cost. Snyder aides said the policy workgroup purposely did not take funding into account.

"We recognize there will be cost implications," Zimmer said. "But again, our charge was to come up with the strongest, most effective LCR to further the national model. ... I did not want to opt into this with a checkbook on every proposal. At some point you're talking about health."

The governor in February asked lawmakers for $25 million to replace Flint's service pipes and an additional $165 million for statewide infrastructure improvements, at least a portion of which could upgrade lead lines elsewhere.