Mason Mayor Russ Whipple calls it "a blatant unfunded mandate from the state."
Three years ago, Michigan put in place some of the strictest rules on lead water pipes in the country, requiring every municipal water system to replace its lead service lines a rate of at least 5 percent per year until there are none left.
It will make Michigan's drinking water safer, but local officials are worried about the costs, which could top $2 billion statewide.
"The water lines that the city is now responsible for replacing have historically been owned by the property owners, and the property owner would've been responsible," Whipple said. "The state's actually requiring us to go into private property...by law we have to comply with it, which means it will affect the water and sewer rates for everybody in the city."
The state and the federal government are looking to make grant money available for the work, but the bulk of the costs will likely fall on local utilities. Mason officials estimate that removing all the city's lead water services lines and all of the galvanized steel service lines once hooked onto lead lines will cost more than $7 million.
"I believe that the lead and the galvanized lines have to be removed, especially in light of what happened in Flint," Whipple said, "but I'm also believing that the water in Mason is perfectly safe."
Why this rule was passed
The revised lead pipe rule was passed in response to the Flint water crisis, which began in 2014 after former Gov. Rick Snyder's team made the decision to switch Flint's water supply from Detroit water to the Flint River, without first adding corrosion inhibitors. This caused lead from the pipes to leach into the city's drinking water, making it unsafe to drink. This crisis lasted until 2019.
According to Scott Dean, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, it is the most stringent in the nation, stricter than federal requirements.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "any amount of lead in people's drinking water is harmful. Even one part per billion can be harmful," Dean said. "With that in mind, that's why Governor Whitmer has proposed a $500 million clean water plan that includes $140 million in grant funding to replace these lead service lines."
The Biden administration as proposed a $45 billion projet to replace every lead service line in the country "so it's a serious issue," Dean said. "It's an infrastructure issue. When you don't modernize your infrastructure, you have issues like these aging lead service lines that represent a threat to public health, and they need to be removed."
Response from some local communities
Dean urges all municipalities to look into grant funding to help with the cost of replacing the lines. He said that given the age of these pipes, a lot of municipalities don't have records that show where lead service lines were installed or when they were last replaced.
"To identify where lead may exist, we may need to dig up the entire line from the water main to the house," said St. Johns City Manager Jon Stoppels.
"That requires heavy equipment and manpower for several hours. Once the line is removed and replaced, the entire area then needs to be restored. The state of Michigan is requiring cities to remove lead lines all the way from the street to the house, even though typically the portion of the service line within the front yard is the property owner’s responsibility. This essentially doubles the cost."
Stoppels said St. Johns has estimated it has between 100 and 125 service lines, "which is a relatively small number for a city as old as St. Johns." He estimates that the cost per line replacement will be between $3,000 and $5,000. That would put the cost of replacing all the lines somewhere between $300,000 and $625,000.
After 12 years and $44,500,000, Lansing's Board of Water and Light replaced its last active lead service line in 2016. Communications Manager Amy Adamy said the utility replaces those lines "from the meter to the main" and will have no additional work to complete under the new rule.
"Our business model has always been trying to transition to the utility of the future and when we looked at potential exposures and infrastructure, that jumped out at us that, you know," BWL General Manager Dick Peffley said. "We were starting to hear things around the country about lead service, and we never had an issue, and we have a very aggressive corrosion control additive which we still add to this date. But we thought if we had a hiccup in it, it could be an issue."
Peffley said that by 2006, they had perfected the technology that allowed the city to cut the cost from about $9,000 a service line to around $3,300. From 2004 to 2016, the city replaced 12,150 service lines.
"We funded it out of our operating expense, so that's why we broke it out and did it over the years. If you do the math, we were probably looking at $3,000,000 to $4,000,000 a year. That way we didn't have to take a loan out -- there was no funding available because it was more or less when we started just being talked about," he said.
Whipple said Mason did a preliminary evaluation of its nearly 3,000 water service lines at the beginning of 2020. Just under half of them will need to be replaced. He also anticipates that it will cost $5,000 per service line replacement.
"Some are higher, some are lower, it depends on the complications. Some streets are real simple, water lines are located in a good spot, but the downside is that most of the lead and galvanized lines are in the older parts of town, and the water service valves and what not are not always in the best spots," Whipple said.
For more information on the lead and copper rule, the health risks associated with lead exposure and the lead levels in your municipality's drinking water, Michigan has a dedicated website called Mi Lead Safe.
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