MML #2: Health & Cost Considerations in Proposed Lead and Copper Rule Changes


MML #2: Health & Cost Considerations in Proposed Lead and Copper Rule Changes

(Crystal A. Proxmire, April 2, 2018)

Lansing, MI – In response to the Flint water crisis, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is revising the lead and copper rule that determines the levels of permissible contamination.  The rule, which has not yet been adopted, has been met with mixed responses by local officials across the state who appreciate the need for water system safety but are concerned about the costs it brings to local governments.

Eric Oswald, Director, Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Division of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spoke about the proposed changes at the recent Michigan Municipal League Capital Conference in Lansing.

Oswald began his presentation by talking about the dangers of lead and progress that has been made in reducing lead exposure in the population.

Lead is known to impair mental development and IQ. It also causes short attention spans and low birth weights.  Copper is tied to stomach and intestinal distress, complication of Wilson’s Disease and chronic exposure can cause liver disease.

In 1978 the United States banned lead in residential paint and began the timeline for phasing it out of gasoline. In 1986 it was banned in plumbing and in 1995 lead solder was banned in the canning of foods.  These steps had a clear impact on the levels of lead in children’s blood.

Yet there is still a problem, particularly in communities with older homes.

Oswald explained that lead exposure does not come from drinking water supplies, but leaches into water from lead service lines and lead in plumbing fixtures in the homes.

Municipalities differ in how they define the line between public water system property and private property.  Some claim ownership up to the point when the lines enter the house.  Others define ownership as ending at the property line.

There are two ways municipalities are responsible for keeping lead exposure low both under the current and the possible rule.  One is that they must add sufficient anti-corrosion agents to the water supply so that as the water travels through the system it does not deteriorate lead and copper hardware, and it provides a seal over such metals.  The other responsibility is to maintain the integrity of the system. Oswald said that lead and copper were not problems in the bulk of water systems, but that it was used in the lines leading to homes, particularly lead soldering.

The debate has often been over whose responsibility that is. The new rule puts that responsibility in the hands of the service providers, which is often municipalities.

The proposed rule update accomplishes several things:

Reduces ambiguity to the lead and copper rule.  The proposed rule makes it clear that if unacceptable levels of lead are found, the water supplier is responsible for replacing the problematic service lines. Some attendees were concerned about the potential cost.  One asked why they would not put the burden on the homeowner.  Oswald said “The answer is if we don’t require it to get done, it’s just not going to get done.  Landlords are not going to do the work. We saw this with lead paint. There are still homes that have this problem.”

He said the some communities, including Grand Rapids, are tackling the problem without legal prompting.  “Grand Rapids is replacing all lead service lines at their expense,” he said.  Others, he said, have dismissed responsibility by declaring that all service lines are private property.

Requires systems to re-examine and verify materials inventories. The proposed rule would require systems to a thorough inventory and documentation of their system.  Communities vary in terms of documentation of where parts of the system are located.  Some have interactive digital maps and renderings, while some just have information jotted down on index cards.  Looking at the infrastructure and documenting what’s there is a key to better addressing system needs, not just in terms of lead and copper, but in overall service quality.  It also helps to examine if systems are the right size for the communities they serve.  “A lot of communities have over-designed systems,” he said.  Causes for this are population loss, loss of manufacturing that used large amounts of water, and systems built in anticipation of developments that did not happen.  Stagnant water, water pressure and maintaining treatment levels all impact the quality of the system.

Lowering Action Level for lead. There is no acceptable level of lead in terms of health, and the ideal would be none at all, Oswald explained. But lowering the levels that are acceptable under the law would bring them closer to zero.  “We have lost confidence that following the [current] lead and copper rule minimizes exposure,” he said.  The current Action Level is 15 parts per billion. The proposed action level is 10 parts per billion.  In systems that test too high, the requirement would be to reduce the level to below 5 parts per billion. “There is no science behind the ten, it’s just a step in the right direction,” he said.

Enhancing sampling methods. The proposed rule would require taking samples at the first draw after water not being used overnight, and again after water has run. The first sample would indicate lead or copper leeching within the home and the second would show it in the service line.  The proposed rule would also require wide-mouthed collection bottles to allow for full flow of water though the faucet.

Increasing sampling.  The proposed rule would require that testing be done in homes that are most at risk.  It also requires annual testing. The current rule requires every three years.

Requiring lead service line replacement. Under the new rule, if increased anti-erosion efforts do not reduce lead levels, the lead service lines must be replaced at the provider’s expense.

Increasing transparency. The rule has several requirements for transparency, including filing results with the state, as well as doing follow up with homeowners.  Currently if lead levels are too high, the homeowner would be notified, but no follow up testing or education is required.

Oswald ran through the various committees and steps in the process to come up with the proposed rules, which began out of the Flint water crisis.  Moving forward, the public comment period ended in March and the rules will be reviewed by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules for the State of Michigan.  “I’m not sure what the timeline’s going to be. We’re aiming for November or Deceber,” Oswald said.

The proposed rules were met with mixed feelings by the municipal leaders who attended the discussion, with officials searching for balance between the need for improved infrastructure and citizen health, with the cost of increased testing and line replacements.  Oswald said the process has been done under pressure.  “On one side people are bashing me because we’re not going far enough or fast enough; on the other side folks are bashing me for going too fast and being too expensive,” he said.

The State of Michigan estimates there are at least 500,000 homes that still have lead service lines throughout the state.

For a more specific list of proposed changes view the DEQ handout at

This article is the second in a series of articles about the Michigan Municipal League Capital conference held March 20-21, 2018. If you aren’t already on our list for Daily Headlines, please sign up HERE so you won’t miss any of this exciting and informative series! Find other MML related articles HERE.

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