Ripple Effects of Flint | Michigan Radio
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Ripple Effects of Flint

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Three communities in Michigan are taking a much closer look for lead in their drinking water this year.

Two women
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Jennifer Gilchrist moved from New York City back home to the Detroit suburb of Beverly Hills in 2016. She moved to help take care of her mom Joellen, a retired Detroit high school teacher, and to fix up her childhood home.

That’s when a plumber told them they had a lead service line.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality is unveiling changes to lead in water rules this week.

Communities in Michigan with lead water pipes will have special interest in a public meeting Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality is hosting Wednesday night.

inside of lead service line
Terese Olson / University of Michigan

Ever since the Flint water crisis, Michigan cities and citizens have started paying attention to lead in drinking water pipes and faucets and the potential dangers they pose.

You might have lead pipes, or fixtures that contain lead, in your home without even knowing. Many cities are only replacing the public side of lead service lines. So determining what's coming into, and what's inside your home is up to you.

There are lead service lines in older communities across Michigan. Because of their age and population size, it’s fair to say the bulk of Michigan’s lead service lines are in cities in Southeast Michigan.

I spent a lot of time trying to determine which Detroit suburbs have lead service lines and how many. I wanted to see how far out into the suburbs lead was found in underground water pipes.

It was relatively easy (albeit an expensive FOIA bill near $2000 for these "public documents") to track down which communities were testing lead lines. But figuring out how many lead pipes were in each community is nearly impossible.

notices
Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

Because of the Flint water crisis, several Michigan cities are making long term plans to replace old lead water pipes that connect homes to the water main.

That is good for public health, but well-meaning municipal water operators can actually make lead exposure worse if they’re not careful.

There’s a mix of lead and copper pipes buried near the corner of Trinity and Florence in a neighborhood on Detroit’s northwest side. When I visited a month ago the block was lined with nice, two story brick homes and orange construction barrels. It smelled like diesel.

1992 LCR document from Battle Creek
Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

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.

construction workers
Bryce Huffman / Michigan Radio

Public and political pressure from the Flint water crisis is beginning to shape new, tougher water regulations in Michigan - and other states are taking notice.

If passed, they’d be the strongest such measures in the country.

Two years ago, when news broke about the Flint water crisis, lots of people wondered if Michigan’s governor would resign. That’s because emails show Rick Snyder’s top aides had concerns about Flint’s water long before pediatricians and scientists proved there was a huge problem.

Lead service line
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Most water systems operators around the state had a hint this was coming.

The Flint water crisis has reverberated among water professionals working from Muskegon and Grand Haven all through the state and to the Detroit metro area; where the bulk of the state's drinking water lines are still buried.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

New test results show lead levels in Kalamazoo’s water system have dropped.

The federal limit for lead in water is 15 parts per billion. Last time the city tested, in 2014, Kalamazoo’s lead level was 13 parts per billion. Now it's down to 4 ppb.

13 ppb was close enough to worry Shannan Deater, Kalamazoo’s Environmental Services Programs Manager. She says some of the higher lead results in 2014 weren’t really a good, representative sample. 

DWSD

Detroit found more lead in drinking water samples this summer than it has in recent years, and there’s a few reasons to account for the uptick.  

Unofficial results posted this month by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department show Detroit’s water is safe to drink by federal standards.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The hunt is on for lead pipes in Detroit.

Flint officials still don’t know where all the city’s lead service lines are. That’s because the building records were in horrible shape.