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Detroit water department head says city needs help removing lead service lines

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Detroit has begun removing a small number of lead service lines already.

The head of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says a portion of Michigan’s new lead and copper rule is an “unfunded mandate”— and one that Detroit can’t comply with without some help from state and local government.

Gary Brown says the department can’t replace all Detroit’s estimated 125,000 lead service lines in the next 20 years, as the rule requires, without double-digit rate hikes.

Brown told the Detroit City Council Tuesday that would make water service unaffordable in a city where many already struggle to pay for it. And he suggested it could violate Michigan law by charging all customers to pay for a project only some will benefit from, rather than rates based solely on water and water sewer usage.

Brown says DWSD is part of a coalition with the state’s other water utilities “basically saying to Lansing that if you want us to go faster, you have to help pay for it. We can’t pass this cost on in rates that would make water unaffordable.”

DWSD projects that digging up and replacing Detroit’s lead service lines will cost $600-$750 million. Brown says the department has decided it’s safer to do full lead line replacements, rather than only replacing the portion of the water line on public land — a common practice some experts say is even riskier than simply leaving the lead pipes in the ground.

But that raises another problem: gaining access to the portion of the line that’s on private property. Brown says getting access to that portion has proven difficult so far in DWSD’s small pilot project to start removing some of its lead pipes.

“We’re not having a lot of success” getting homeowners to allow access to their private line, Brown told the City Council. For that reason, Brown wants the city to make legal changes giving the water department access to them.

“The two major dilemmas are, how do we pay for [lead service line removal], and how do we remove the legal obstacles to allow me to take control of the private side of the line,” Brown said.

Brown emphasized that Detroit’s water is currently testing well below the state’s new threshold for lead in drinking water, which is 12 parts per billion. But the new Michigan Department of Environmental Quality rule requires all water utilities to remove lead service lines anyway — despite pushback from utilities and local units of government insisting they shouldn’t have to bear the entire burden of a project that will “cost millions to local communities with unknown benefit.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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