One of the things Flint’s water operators got in trouble for was falsifying records; for saying the city was testing homes at the highest risk of having elevated lead levels when it was not. But records obtained by Michigan Radio show Flint is not the only city in the state that tested the wrong homes over the years and potentially underestimated lead in water.
The biggest culprit for high lead in tap water is the lead water pipes that connect a house to the water main. That’s why cities are supposed to test those homes.
In Battle Creek, more than 4,000 homes have lead pipes. But for 25 years, city officials didn’t test the water at any of them.
“I followed my predecessors' sampling plans and submitted the results and received the compliance letter. It was a case of – if it’s not broke don’t fix it," says Perry Hart, who has only run the city's water system since 2008.
It was Hart who discovered the issue in the spring of 2016, after news of the Flint water crisis.
Hart didn’t panic, but he was “concerned” Battle Creek, a city with thousands of lead water lines it wasn’t testing, could have an undetected problem.
He called up his contact at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to ask her what he should do.
“To use your term, the oh s*** moment was when she sent me an email that defined what we were going to have to do. And there’s a sentence in that email that I could almost quote you – the city of Battle Creek does not have and has never been compliant in the Lead and Copper Rule – that, I mean I should frame that thing and put it on the wall in my office because that was the oh s*** moment. But she was right,” he says.
A difference of interpretation
I did track down one of Hart’s predecessors; the guy who originally decided not to test any homes in Battle Creek with underground lead water pipes, to try to understand why.
John O’Brien now works for the Genesee County Drain Commissioner, so he declined to be interviewed for this story.
But he did say that he worked with state officials in the early 1990s to comply with the new federal lead rule. O’Brien claims the city couldn’t sample from homes with lead pipes because the city only owns half the lead pipe. The other half is private property controlled by the homeowner.
He claims that, in 1991, the EPA’s new lead and copper rule spelled out this ownership requirement. The EPA denies that, and frankly, if what O’Brien says was the case, almost any city in Michigan with lead service lines could’ve opted out of testing these worst case scenario homes. Hardly any city owns the entire length of the water pipe underground.
Another apparent misinterpretation about the definition of what qualifies as a lead line is lead goosenecks. Homes with these 18 to 24 inch-long sections of lead pipe count as high risk too. Ann Arbor, Traverse City and Muskegon were all affected by that change.
State typically doesn't require cities to prove they're testing the right homes
No one with the state had ever asked Hart to prove he was testing homes with lead pipes.
In fact, none of the water system operators I’ve talked to said they could recall regulators asking them to prove it either.
As one operator said, "They pretty much take us at our word." Not to say we can’t take these water managers at their word.
But some cities could not produce records under the Freedom of Information Act to prove they’re testing homes with lead water lines. Some others included records that don't specify from what material the service line is made.
In Detroit, which has more lead lines than any other city in the state, a city attorney said providing records for 45 homes it tested in 2016 would cost Michigan Radio $12,000. Even so, Detroit's chief engineer, Palencia Mobley, says the old index cards typically don't say what kind of pipe is buried underground.
Mobley says she's not sure how city officials picked out Detroit homes in 1991 for compliance sampling. "It was probably a shot in the dark. They sent some letters out, gave people instructions and got what they got," she says.
A review of Detroit's sampling reports shows some of the same homes were listed as having a copper line some years, a lead line others, then back to having lead or even galvanized iron. The city verified it was testing the correct homes in 2016.
A DEQ spokeswoman says the state didn’t issue a monitoring violation to Battle Creek but it did require the city to do much more sampling especially focusing on homes with a lead pipe.
Good news for Battle Creek
There is good news in Battle Creek though. All of its water tests, even those with a lead pipe, have come back far below the federal limits for lead.
Even more good news: Battle Creek now has a 20-year plan to replace the city’s lead pipes.
If it wasn’t for the Flint water crisis, there’s next to no chance this city crew would be outside Ric Moore’s house.
“Honestly, I didn’t know until I was listening to the radio,” explains Moore. “There’s water work being done on Cynthia Street between Stiles and Burge, and I’m like ‘Oh! Oh they’re right in front of my house, that’s awesome.’ Literally found out as I was pulling up.”
What Moore found out, five years after buying this house, is that it has a lead service line.
He had no idea because the part of the water line Moore is responsible for, the side coming into his basement, was made of copper. Instead, it was the city-owned side of his water line that was made of lead, hidden under the road out front.
At last check, crews in Battle Creek had replaced 50 lead lines so far. All of them had this setup; with the only lead pipe on the city-owned side of the water service line.
Moore has two young kids. If he would’ve known that lead line was there, Moore says he probably would’ve gotten his water tested.
This post has been updated with a response from MDEQ.