Michigan’s sweeping new water regulations set new standard for states plagued by lead

As Pruitt's EPA fails to lead on enforcing lead rules, experts say states have the chance to lead the way.

Volunteers load bottled water in a truck at the the Sylvester Broome Center in Flint, Mich. CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Volunteers load bottled water in a truck at the the Sylvester Broome Center in Flint, Mich. CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Michigan is set to become the first state in the country to get rid of lead pipes meant to carry drinking water, a result of the enduring legacy of the crisis infamously plaguing the town of Flint. The state’s new measures are the strictest in the country — potentially paving the way for other areas that have suffered from similarly dangerous lead levels to purse policy changes.

Under new regulations established earlier this month and drafted by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), public water utilities across the state will have to replace around 500,000 lead service lines carrying drinking water. That process, slated to begin in 2021, is projected to take two decades, with the expenses covered by utilities themselves, even if all or part of the line is privately owned.

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The regulations go beyond mass-service line replacement. A lower threshold for lead amounts in water will now trigger greater scrutiny of water systems, with such systems also responsible for submitting a complete inventory and their accompanying methodology in the next seven years.

The new state-level rules come despite the Trump administration’s ongoing rollback of environmental protections.

“In wake of the Flint water crisis, there has been immense public pressure to update the rules to protect public health,” the MDEQ explained when the new regulations were announced, as reported by Governing. “Health providers, elected officials and the public at large have become aware that the existing rules and drinking water standards for lead are not health-based standards and not as protective of public health as they should be, especially for vulnerable populations of infants and children.”

As the department noted, the regulations are the result of continued fallout from one of the country’s most controversial lead incidents. In 2014, the source for the drinking water serving the town of Flint changed from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River, a cheaper source that has historically suffered decades of industrial pollution. Insufficient water treatment later exposed the entire town to dangerously high lead levels, leading the government to declare a state of emergency in 2016.

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Flint residents are still using bottled and filtered water today, awaiting the replacement of the town’s lead pipes — a process that is slated to take at least another two years.

But Michigan is far from the only state with a lead problem. A 2016 Reuters investigation found thousands of areas across the United States with lead poisoning worse than Flint. Many of those spots have received significantly less media attention than Flint, but their situations are just as — if not more — dire.

Reuters found areas in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Ohio with staggeringly high lead levels. One zip code, located on Goat Island, Texas, showed a quarter of children tested had lead poisoning. In the Pennsylvanian town of Warren, that number was 36 percent. Baltimore, Cleveland, and Philadelphia were among the major U.S. cities with high percentages.

Those numbers, however, aren’t exclusive to lead poisoning resulting from insufficient water treatment, the issue plaguing Flint. Many are linked to lead found in paint, as well as industrial waste left behind. In another sweeping 2016 study, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found cases of lead toxicity in every single state in the country, with sources ranging from household items to drinking water.

Michigan’s new regulations relate only to those hazards posed by water. Even within those confines, some critics argue they don’t go far enough, namely in that they don’t require cities to conduct corrosion control studies when switching water sources. Flint’s crisis occurred when the town failed to add certain chemicals to prevent its pipes from corroding. But for some advocates, the state’s new rules mark the only real effort in the country to address the problem.

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Erik Olson, an NRDC senior director focused on healthy communities, told ThinkProgress that Michigan’s new regulations mark a crucial step in the fight to counter hazardous lead levels, but that other states are lagging far behind.

“A lot of other states that have been wrestling with this question, [but] not a lot of them have stepped up to adopt or propose a rule like Michigan’s,” Olson said on Monday. “We’re hoping Michigan adopting this will spur other states to step up.”

Some states are further along than others. Following actions taken by Pennsylvania and Indiana, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed legislation in February allowing the state to move forward with replacing some 240,000 lead service lines across the state. Lead toxicity has been a particular problem in the city of Milwaukee: Of the approximately 10 million homes nationwide with lead service lines, around 74,000 are in Milwaukee. A May 2018 study also found that the city mismanaged a program meant to counter lead poisoning in children, exacerbating an already-severe problem.

“I wouldn’t say I’m getting goosebumps about how fast they are,” Olson said, regarding the progress made by these states and indicating that, while steps are being taken, they are happening slowly. But, he countered, such efforts are still vital — especially given inaction at the federal level.

“The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is completely missing in action on this and has been for years,” Olson said.

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Under EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency has overseen the mass-rollback of Obama-era regulatory initiatives. While Olson said the agency has not gone back on the current Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), which sets federal limitations on those metals in public drinking water, there haven’t been many clear signals to activists that Pruitt is prioritizing lead issues.

The administrator has declared a “war on lead,” but has been slow to act on enforcing the rule, despite arguments from experts that weak LCR enforcement allowed Flint’s crisis to occur. Gina McCarthy, who served as an EPA administrator under the Obama administration, faced calls for her resignation during the height of Flint media coverage.

A number of advocates say the Trump administration has made the situation worse. In May, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), who has been critical of Pruitt’s inaction on LCR enforcement, tweeted that his staff were barred from entering an EPA summit on toxic chemicals. Kildee, who represents Flint, slammed the “lack of transparency” stemming from the Trump administration surrounding the issue.

But advocates intend to press forward, with or without Pruitt. In April, the NRDC partnered with the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus) to demand accountability in New Jersey under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Newark’s lead levels are among the highest in the country and the school district has struggled in its efforts to solicit funding for items like water filters.

A notice sent to New Jersey and Newark officials gave them 60 days to fix a number of stated LCR violations — at the end of which point the organizations have said they will file a lawsuit.