Residents Learn about Lead Level Tests at Birmingham Town Hall

Residents Learn about Lead Level Tests at Birmingham Town Hall

(Drew Saunders, Nov. 20, 2019)

Birmingham, MI – Recently news of lead in the water has hit several Oakland County cities, including Birmingham.  In response the City of Birmingham hosted a town hall on Nov. 14 to explain the test results and answer resident questions.

Michigan adopted a new Lead and Copper Rule last year, which toughened water quality-laws state-wide by creating stricter water sampling methods, requiring all utilities to identify what water pipes are made of lead or copper, and replace them within 20 years. The new rule also created the 15 PPB level as a threshold for when the state needs to take action, which will narrow to 12 PPB in 2025. It also requires utilities to replace lead service lines at between five to seven percent per year until their system is lead free.

The city says it has identified 780 houses with lead pipes, and is still investigating a further 84 water customers.  They tested a sampling of those homes, and 9% of those tested had lead levels exceeding the 15 PPB cap, with results at 17 PPB.  Experts, including the World Health Organization, agree the lead is dangerous at any level.

In addition to doing the required testing, the City is planning to follow the State mandates and replace lead pipes city-wide by 2041 or sooner if they are able.  The state required the city to send out a notice to residents, even those unaffected by lead service lines. This prompted concerns and questions.

Some of the residents were confused by the wording of the notice, which was not chosen by the city. City Commissioner Stuart Sherman said that the notices sent out to residents had unnecessarily led to a small panic. The press release itself said that “the city of Birmingham has exceeded the action level for lead” and that the information was “brought to you by the City of Birmingham” without any clear indication that the excessive lead findings were only found in 9 percent of addresses.

“We wanted to change the wording and they [the state] wouldn’t let us,” Sherman said. He added that they had wanted to add a cover letter to the release, to clarify that the problem wasn’t a city-wide issue, but they couldn’t. “We felt a little gagged. That’s not fair to the residents and the community.”

Birmingham City Manager Joe Valentine said the city will help residents with lead pipes by waving $2,000 in various fees involved in infrastructure changes, but that will still leave residents with about $8,000 in costs to replace the part of the system they own.

State Representative Mari Manoogian (D – Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township & West Bloomfield) reported that she and colleagues in the legislature approved $120 million to help communities replace lead lines, as well as funding additional research on water quality. After speaking at the meeting, Manoogian told the Oakland County Times that this first allocation is a first step.

“Much of it will be appropriated for the lead and copper rule around the state. It’s up to the executive to how we’re going to allocate those dollars to local communities, but I imagine some of that is going to be revenue sharing, so local communities can bear that cost,” Manoogian said.

Residents can choose to remove their pipes if lead is an issue for $8,000 yourself. But in order to take advantage of the revenue sharing portion of the budget, the cities effected by lead pipes would have to work together to get the infrastructure changed out collectively, which is what Valentine wants to do in the near future.

“If we do it sporadically, it’s gonna cost us between $6,000 to $10,000 per home. If we do it on a broader scale, with other communities, we have the opportunity to bring that down significantly,” Valentine said. “Then we have the ability to leverage our existing funds to do two or three times as many as we would have at the high rate, and expedite our abatement on a more aggressive schedule.”The state has gotten more sophisticated in its lead testing since the Flint Water Crisis. After letting pipes sit idle for six hours, they take five one-liter water samples in quick succession. The first liter provides a sample of water within a home’s faucet and the fifth liter provides a sample of the water passing through the “goose neck” – a flexible attachment between the private line and the city’s water line.

“This is the first year of the new version of the test,” Manoogian said. “It’s a much different method because our testing method, and understanding of the science, has gotten a lot better. Having a better understanding of where that water is in your pipes [gives you] a better understanding of what the source of the contamination is.”

The fact that this system allows officials to tell what part of the water comes from what part of the pipe tells officials a lot, since most pipes are decades old, and in most cases, no one knows what kind of pipe was used when they were installed.  By having multiple samples to work on, they can tell what is lead, what is copper and what is uncontaminated. This more sophisticated method took Birmingham’s results from the eight to seventeenth percentile, according to Brandon Oanan, of the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

The city has a link on its website where residents can check to to see if the city has found lead service pipes at their property: https://www.bhamgov.org/government/departments/dps/lead_and_copper_testing.php

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