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Issues Of The Environment: The Ongoing Flint Water Crisis

Jeff Irwin
Michigan House Democrats

The Flint water crisishas led many communities to reexamine water safety.  In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair talks with  State Representative Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) about the push for more funding to fix the crisis and how to improving testing standards for water quality in Michigan.


  * The state government continues to push forward measures to provide needed funding resources for addressing the ongoing water crisis in Flint.  Many believe the investment to this point has not been enough.  Ann Arbor State Representative Jeff Irwin is among those pushing for a bill that would immediately provide $55 million in funding to remove and replace lead contaminated water pipes in the stricken city. 

  * Following the Flint crisis, the accuracy of lead testing protocols used in Michigan has come under fire.  It has come to light that most Michigan testing is outside of (and in many cases in violation of) EPA’s standards. This includes sampling done in the WEMU listening area. While Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County tap water is reportedly at very low risk for lead, it is quite possible the current testing could mask some of the risk for locations with a higher probability of lead exposure. Jeff Irwin and some of his colleagues are proposing changes to legislation regarding testing so that the MDEQ, which is responsible for overseeing lead-in-water testing, will enforce the EPA’s requirements and best practices and also close loopholes inherent in the 1991 Lead Copper Rule.

  *Jeff Irwin is a co-sponsor of 2015 House Bill 5094: It would specify methodology for municipal water testing. The 54rd District Democrat's measure was introduced by Representative Sheldon Neeley (D) on December 1, 2015.  It would require municipal water departments or providers to perform required water quality tests using procedures specified by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.  If passed, all cities in Michigan will have to adhere to the best practices outlined by the EPA. This bill would prohibit a sampling procedure known as "pre-flushing," which can lower lead level readings.  MDEQ has acknowledged it enforced the wrong federal standards for treating Flint water.  Records recently obtained by The Flint Journal show the city also disregarded federal rules. 

EPA Lead Copper Rule Requirements

According to the 1991 Lead Copper Rule, municipalities are required to test a defined number of samples of tap water in the community for excessive levels of lead and copper (15 ppb or more), and if too great a proportion of the samples exceed the maximum allowable standard (greater than 10% of samples), then remediation action must take place. The EPA requires samples to come from “high risk” locations, not random samples!  The prioritizing of high risk locations is ignored in many municipalities, and is part of the reason the Flint situation went undetected for a time. Another problem with Flint’s sampling is a practice known as “pre-flushing” that allows high lead levels to be washed out of the system prior to testing. 

EPA Lead Copper Rule Demands Samples from At-Risk Locations

Until recently, both the city of Flint and guidelines issued for the entire state by the Michigan department of environmental quality (MDEQ) required that residents turned on their faucets for several minutes before taking a sample of water for lead testing. This practice of “pre-flushing” taps is thought to lower lead content in samples and is discouraged by the Environmental Protection Agency, despite its widespread use across the U.S.  Previously, Michigan residents were told to “turn on the cold faucet of your kitchen or main bathroom sink and let it run for three to four minutes” the night before the test.

Pre-Flushing is NOT Banned by the EPA

Flint belatedly removed pre-flushing from its tests in December and now it has emerged MDEQ has followed suit, following consultation with the EPA, which recently issued an emergency order to intervene in the Flint crisis.  An MDEQ spokeswoman told the Guardian that the previous testing instructions were “in compliance” with the EPA’s lead and copper rule, which doesn’t explicitly ban pre-flushing or several other alterations used by cities and states to influence lead content.

EPA Published Best Practices

When collecting lead and copper tap samples, you must follow the procedures listed below:

  *   Always collect a 1-liter sample in one container only (e.g., do not split the sample between two containers).

  *   Always collect a first-draw sample from a tap where the water has stood in the pipes for at least 6 hours (e.g., no flushing, showering, etc.), except where noted below in the box titled: “Related LCRMR Provisions”. However, make sure it is a tap that is used regularly, and not an abandoned or infrequently used tap.

  *   First-draw samples collected at single-family residences should always be drawn from the cold-water kitchen tap or bathroom tap.

  *   First-draw samples collected from buildings other than single-family homes should always be drawn from an interior tap from which water is typically taken for consumption.

  *   You may allow residents to collect sample, but you must supply the residents with instructions as to the sample collection procedures.  You can use the instruction form provided as page E-5 of Appendix E.  Be sure to properly label sample bottles prior to distributing them to residents.

  *   As a general rule, you should collect your lead and copper tap water samples early in the monitoring period in case you exceed the lead or copper action level. This is because you will be required to also collect Water Quality Parameter (WQP) samples during the same monitoring period.

LCR Loopholes

The 1991 Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) requires water companies to sample lead levels in home tap water. Private wells that serve day care centers, schools, or commercial enterprises also are covered under the rule.  Water utilities must conduct sampling in a relatively small number of homes at high risk for elevated lead levels—for example, homes known to have lead service lines or lead solder. The size of the water system determines how many samples must be collected in each sampling period. For a major metropolis, this could be 100 homes.  For a system serving 10,000 homes or less, 40 samples must be collected. The sampling interval can vary from 6 months to 3 years; systems with good compliance sample less often.

The EPA requires water utilities to test the first flush (or first draw)—water that has stood in pipes for a minimum of 6 hours. Ideally there will be no lead in any sample, but under the LCR up to 10% of the high-risk households sampled may have lead levels that exceed 15 parts per billion (PPB). If more than 10% of this sample pool has tap water with lead levels exceeding 15 PPB, then utilities are required to notify customers and sometimes take remedial action, which can include replacing lead pipes that occur beneath publicly owned spaces such as streets and sidewalks. “Most people think the current EPA standards for lead in drinking water are set to protect public health, says YannaLambrinidou, president of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, a children’s health advocacy group in Washington, D.C.  “So if a water utility says its water meets the lead standard, then people accept this and don’t worry about the water.”  But essentially, a water company could meet all the EPA’s requirements and still have 9% of the homes sampled with hazardous levels of lead in their water.

Common Sampling Errors

There are myriad ways to miss high lead levels either accidentally or intentionally, says Marc Edwards, environmental engineer at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.  These include:

  *   failure to pick the worst-case houses

  *   not allowing water to stand long enough before sampling

  *   removing the aerator (a screen added to the faucet to reduce spray and/or conserve water) before sampling

  *   sampling in cooler months (when lead concentrations in water are lower because lead dissolves less readily in chilled water).

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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