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Getting the lead out after Flint: How states reacted to the crisis

by Jon Davis ~ December 2018 ~ Stateline Midwest »
After the water crisis in Flint, Mich., burst onto the national scene in late 2015 and early 2016, many states took a closer look at their laws regarding lead pipes and water service lines. A new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Northeast-Midwest Institute details post-Flint lead laws and regulations passed since 2015 in those regions.
In the Midwest, legislators in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin approved bills that became law requiring the inventorying of lead service lines and determining how water systems can cover the cost of removing them, or mandating lead testing in schools and day-care centers. Additionally, Michigan and Ohio enacted other regulatory measures.
“In the absence of a strong and proactive federal response to the crisis, some states have addressed various aspects of this issue, but a comprehensive approach is lacking,” authors of the report say.
Michigan: Get rid of all lead pipes and notify residents faster of problems
Not surprisingly, Michigan was among the leaders in post-Flint legislation targeting lead contamination in water. Michigan is now the only state in the country to adopt a stringent state version of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, ahead of revisions due at the federal level in 2020, according to the report.
Under new rules promulgated by the states’ Department of Environmental Quality, water utilities will be required to replace all lead service lines, public and private, within 20 years at the utilities’ expense, at a rate averaging 5 percent per year starting in 2021.
And, beginning in 2025, the state’s lead “action level” — the amount of lead that requires remediation action and public notification by utilities and state officials — will be lowered to 12 parts per billion from the existing 15 ppb set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. HB 5120, which took effect in March 2017, requires cities to notify residents of lead contamination within three days of its being reported by public water systems.
Illinois: Test all older K-5 schools and inventory lead pipes statewide
In Illinois, SB 550 (signed into law in early January) requires community water systems to create a comprehensive inventory of lead service lines, including privately owned ones, and notify affected building occupants. It also allows water utilities to charge a hazard recovery fee to pay for that work.
The new law also requires lead testing in all elementary schools — public and private — built before January 2000. By July 2019, the Illinois Department of Public Health must determine whether schools built since that date should also be tested.
The law also mandates lead testing in licensed day-care centers, as well as in home and group day care settings. Illinois also set its “action level” for school lead remediation efforts at 2 ppb as of December 2018, the lowest in the country.
Elsewhere in the Midwest, Minnesota legislators in 2017 passed the K-12 education omnibus bill, HF 890, which requires lead testing in all public schools once every five years (that clock began ticking in July).
Minnesota also has set two action levels for lead detected in school water fixtures — an actionable standard of 20 ppb and an advisory standard of 2 ppb. When lead is detected in water fixtures at 20 ppb or higher, schools are required to not use the fixture for cooking and drinking purposes and to identify remedial measures. If lead levels between 2 ppb and 20 ppb are detected, the affected water fixtures may still be used for cooking and drinking while remedial measures are explored.
Ohio’s HB 512, passed in 2016 and signed in June of that year, requires water systems to identify and map areas of the systems that are known or are likely to contain lead service lines, and to identify characteristics of buildings that may contain lead piping, solder or fixtures. Maps must be updated every five years.
On its website, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency now lists maps of lead service lines provided by all 1,851 of Ohio’s water utilities.
Indiana legislators in 2017 passed HB 1519, which allows public water utilities to include customer lead service line replacements as eligible infrastructure-improvement charges for water and wastewater utilities, and lets regulated water and wastewater utilities charge the cost of replacing lead service lines through rate fees.
Wisconsin’s SB 48, which became law in February, allows municipalities and private utilities to provide financial assistance to property owners to replace the lead water service lines on their property, which they (not the utilities) own. The law doesn’t define ownership but treats the portion of the line on private property as owned by the property owner and refers to it as a “customer-side water service line.”
Despite these laws and the news media coverage of the health hazards from lead pipes, the Northeast-Midwest report states, “In the absence of federal action on lead in municipal water, state action has been less than robust.” But it also notes that the turnover in governors and legislators from the November 2018 general election and increasing citizen activism “will likely result in more states revising their existing laws and regulations in the coming years.”
The report concludes there is room for improvement: “While elements of certain state laws are laudatory (for instance, affordability provisions in Wisconsin and mandatory school lead testing every year in Pennsylvania), no one state’s approach is comprehensive enough to be used as a template for other states.”