Friday, January 21, 2022

Under lead, Michigan’s drinking water may look safer than it actually is

This story is co-published with Planet Detroit.

The new lead management rules, introduced by Michigan in 2018 following the Flint water crisis, were announced as the strictest of the nationbut poor enforcement and flawed testing protocols make the state’s drinking water safer than it actually is, according to an analysis of state reports by Planet Detroit and HuffPost.

Public health advocates say some of the most at risk water systems fail to comply with a key provision that requires systems that exceed lead limits to test lead pipe water in subsequent tests.

Instead, the systems test water from pipes made of a different or unknown material. This makes their lead levels look lower than they might actually be, and allows officials to legally argue that the water is safe to drink.

“It gives residents a false sense of confidence in the quality of the water,” said Elin Betanzo, a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist who now leads the Michigan-based Safe Water Engineering group.

What’s more, public health advocates say the state’s recently enacted Lead and Copper Rule requires plumbing systems to test too few pipes and annual tests are too rare to give a realistic picture of the hazard of lead – emissions are unpredictable and hazardous amounts of particles can be washed out. Anytime.

State reports also show that some municipalities still do not know what materials 90% of their service lines are made of. And since 10% of the system’s results must exceed the limits before further testing can begin, some pipes that emit lead in quantities considered hazardous to human health have yielded little to no results.

The challenges have led to “a disconnect between what we measure, what conclusions we draw, and the messages we deliver,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech professor and activist for the Lead-Free Water Campaign.

“After all, people want to know that their water is safe to drink and cook … but even if we found the perfect formula or used statistically significant samples, we still wouldn’t be able to tell anyone from home exactly what was going on. the taps they use, ”she added.

The new rules also increased the number of inspections from every three years to annually, required more reliable follow-up inspections when the water system exceeded limits, and in 2025 the action rate would drop from 15 ppb. up to 12.

The Michigan Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is responsible for compliance. His spokesman Hugh McDiarmid confirmed that some systems with lead levels above the state’s threshold for action did not specifically test the water from the guide lines during subsequent tests, but he said they were given a pass because many of the systems were built so long ago that there is no record of which pipes are made of lead anyway.

However, the EPA guidelines for federal lead and copper regulations is talking that systems should look for more lead pipes in such scenarios, and states should follow agency rules when they don’t have their own. Michigan has given water systems a complete inventory of their pipe material by 2025.

McDiarmid also said that EGLE lacks the resources to fully monitor lead testing, which local water utilities are underway.

“EGLE does not have the staff to thoroughly analyze all individual samples from each system,” he said.

People gather in front of a church before taking part in a clean water march in Flint, Michigan on February 19, 2016.

Bill Pugliano via Getty Images

In response to public health advocates’ concerns about methodology, McDiarmid said that EGLE “is committed to meeting the demands of government leadership and The rule of copper, so we work within the framework provided to us by the regulatory framework. “

Betanzo said that officials at all levels of government are likely to allow water systems to circumvent the rules for two reasons: Lead pollution is a public relations headache, but in reality the problem is costly.

This increases the urgency of ensuring that water consumers can use the filters, Lambrinidou said. Even if state leading lines are replaced in 2041 as required by the new regulations, plumbing in homes may contain lead and in places where lead service lines have never been installed. still find levels in their water that violate federal regulations.

“We need to move away from testing to determine if taps are safe, and we have to assume that every bend has a lead risk, and this is scientifically sound because we have lead pipes everywhere,” she said.

Why testing failed

In 2019, Dearborn Heights surpassed the state’s leading action level when water of about 20% of 30 urban sites tested was above the lead limit. This led to re-testing of 62 facilities, and the city found that nearly half of them exceeded the legal limit.

But with additional testing at the end of 2020, the numbers began to improve – less than a third of sites exceeded the limit. By early 2021, only two sites exceeded the limit. Dearborn Heights and the state have declared the city’s water safe to drink.

It was not because of and here is an ecological miracle. The numbers dropped because Dearborn Heights stopped testing water from pipes he knew were made of lead. The data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows that all or most of the pipes tested in the first two rounds were made of lead. In the last two rounds, there were only 13 and zero, respectively.

“Magic – no more exceeding the lead action level,” Betanzo said.

The actual extent of lead pollution in Dearborn Heights, Detroit’s main middle-class suburb, remains unclear.

Dearborn Heights has tested its water in 2019, 2020 and 2021. It was only in the fourth round of testing, after the company did not test any site using a test protocol designed to collect water from utility lines, that it was able to achieve compliance. Data provided by EGLE at the request of FOIA.

And while EGLE’s rules dictate that aquatic systems conduct follow-up testing at sites that are “served by a leading service provider,” Dearborn Heights is not alone. Of the 33 plumbing systems that had lead pipes and elevated lead levels in 2019 and 2020, at least 17 included water samples from pipes made of non-lead or unknown materials in subsequent tests at some or all of the sites. These include Royal Oak Township, Claire, St. Clair Shores, Harper Woods and Garden City.

McDiarmid noted that Dearborn Heights and Royal Oak Townships have only a very small number of confirmed lead pipes to test, and said the regulations allow water systems that “cannot access sufficiently known” supply lines to test water. from non-lead pipes or laid lines. unknown material.

But the EGLE rules don’t say anything about “access”. They state that systems can check non-lead lines if there are “not enough”. Water quality reports at Dearborn Heights and Royal Oak Township show that they have about 2,000 and 700 pipelines, respectively, made of an unknown material.

Royal Oak Township, which has only nine confirmed lead pipes, has just received a $ 3.4 million grant and forgivable loan from EGLE to fund approximately 600 lead pipe replacements over the next two years. Meanwhile, a preliminary inventory of the Dearborn Heights water system indicates a high likelihood of an increase in the number of lead pipes.

Betanzo it is accused that the problem is not “not enough” lead lines – the government simply does not require water systems to look for them, even if those in question have exceeded lead limits and are among the most at risk. It is also possible that in some cases water systems only check the first liter of water, rather than the first and fifth liters as prescribed by the EGLE rules, which is a change made to trap water that was in service lines farther from the tap. … Testing only the first liter will also reduce the likelihood of lead being detected.

“It looks like EGLE allows aquatic systems to do whatever they want, as long as they haven’t confirmed the lead line of service,” Betanzo said.

Dearborn Heights water officials did not return calls from Planet Detroit.

‘Russian roulette’

About 311,000 service lines supply water to Detroit, and since the new law went into effect, the city has declared it to be compliant with state laws and protected from lead pollution.

But city records show that about 80,000 Detroit pipes contain lead, and about 30,000 are made of unknown material. Under the state’s lead and copper rule, the city only checks 50 pipes in its entire system annually, and public health advocates say that is too few to give a reliable picture of lead levels across Detroit’s 146 square miles.

People prepare to take part in a march dedicated to the pursuit of clean water in Flint, February 19, 2016.
People prepare to take part in a march dedicated to the pursuit of clean water in Flint, February 19, 2016.

Bill Pugliano via Getty Images

And while testing annually rather than every three years is an improvement, public health advocates say it’s not enough because it’s impossible to know when lead will get into the water. Lead emissions are influenced by the age of pipes, the condition of corrosion protection, the use of water in systems and homes, and vibration caused by traffic or construction.

In a city like Detroit with a lot of lead pipes, the state’s methodology “is not going to reflect what’s really going on in the water supply,” said Susan Little, a health advocate for the Environment Working Group, a national organization to protect clean water. water. group.

“Sampling is extremely inadequate — it is paltry compared to the actual need,” she said. “Moreover, lead is unpredictable. It can appear anywhere. “

It is supported academic research who found that one-off annual tests “falsely indicate the water is safe,” and hundreds of tests are required under various flow conditions before an accurate picture of lead contamination levels can be formed.

Moreover, the law does not evoke a reaction from the entire community until at least 10% of the sample does not exceed the level of the leading action. Public health advocates say the threshold is too high, and the flaw in this approach is highlighted by a 2020 Pontiac test that found a dangerous 2900 ppb that did not lead to retesting.

“This creates a situation with Russian roulette,” Little said.

The Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage did not respond to questions in an email from Planet Detroit, but said residents could ask the agency to test their homes for lead pipes for free.

McDiarmid said the sample pool is not intended to be statistically significant, but “deliberately focuses on the sites with the greatest potential for lead problems.” Citing a 2,900 ppb measurement found at Pontiac, he noted that the homeowner had been notified and said the state sometimes identifies issues that are causing such spikes.

“Sometimes there have been no people in the house for a long period of time, in other cases it is found that there is very little water in this place,” he said. “Whatever the reason, this variability in data in some places is the reason why flushing before using water for the first time in a long time is so important.”

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