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Highland Park’s long path to lead-free water

Highland Park’s long path to lead-free water

The city got an encouraging result in its last round of testing, but it could be years before it’s in the clear


To understand the challenges of testing for lead in water, look no further than Highland Park. 

At the end of 2019, the impoverished city contained entirely within Detroit got back some alarming test numbers. It’s 90th percentile result for lead in water — the standard used to see if a water system is above the state’s threshold level — was 57 parts per billion (ppb). It was the fourth-highest test result in the state and well above the lead action level of 15 ppb. One resident got a result of 210 ppb. 

But just this month it got back a much more encouraging result of 10 — a 470% decrease. How to explain the enormous difference?

“I can’t rub a crystal ball and tell you why they were better,” Damon Garrett, director of Highland Park’s Water Department, told Planet Detroit. 

Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule, which revised federal guidelines in 2018, enacted the strictest regulations for testing lead in the nation. Among the numerous changes, water systems that exceed the threshold level must test twice a year instead of once from a larger sample size, optimize corrosion control, and increase its rate of lead service line replacement from 5% to 7% per year. 

Garrett said that several factors may have contributed to the better result this year, including sampling a more “representative” pool of homes, less construction over the last six months (which can cause lead to break free from pipes), and more residents replacing their lead-capturing aerators. 

Another possible reason is that Highland Park didn’t test the same households. The city was required to test 60 homes this time, but Garrett says only 11 of the 36 homes that participated in 2019 responded to the city’s latest request. Of the nine homes that had an exceedance, only one was retested and it came in under the lead action level.

A spokesperson for Michigan’s Environment, Great Lakes & Energy Department wrote to Planet Detroit that water systems should try and sample the same homes between testing rounds. But there are many reasons that may not be possible, such as changes to the site’s tiering level (i.e. service line or plumbing replacements), homeowners refusing to participate, and changes in occupancy or use that makes a site no longer a good sampling location.

That’s a bit concerning to Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. “[The Lead and Copper Rule] has a presumption for sampling the same sites to make sure there’s some continuuity in the assessment of a water system,” he said. “If it’s not in violation of the rule, it certainly goes against the spirit of the rule.” 

The pandemic may contribute additional difficulties. People might be hesitant to let others in their homes, and corrosion control may have improved with people staying home and using their water with more frequency, Leonard said.

“There are nuances to the Lead and Copper Rule that make interpreting results difficult,” Leonard said. “But we can say fairly confidently that the [lower] result was not tied to action that Highland Park has taken in the past year.”

Many subtle factors affect lead tests. Results can vary widely based on things like how long the water has been sitting in pipes, the amount of corrosion control used by the water system, the age of the pipes, and the temperature of the water, to name a few. 

These barriers to accurate testing often conceal lead contamination. But in Michigan, water systems are now required to conduct more rigorous testing that increases the likelihood of detecting lead contamination where it exists. Almost every municipality in the state that tested for the 5th liter — which provides a more accurate assessment of how much lead is leaching from the service line connecting homes to the main water line — saw an increase in its results from their last test. 

“The hope is that the next generation in Michigan won’t be dealing with these issues, there won’t even be any possibility of another Flint water crisis because the source of the contamination will have been removed,” Leonard said. “That’s a big, big step.”

Highland Park, for example, last sampled its water in 2016 and got a result below the action level threshold. Yet it still had the highest percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels in the state at 14%. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning, which can permanently hinder nervous system and cognitive development. 

Though Highland Park got a promising result this time, it’s not in the clear yet. Water systems have to get two consecutive rounds of results below the lead action level before they can avoid mandatory measures required by the Lead and Copper Rule. 

Lead pipes are the greatest source of lead in drinking water, and replacing them is the best way to reduce lead levels. All water systems in the state have to replace all their lead service and main lines by 2040 under the Lead and Copper Rule.

Garrett said that prior to the city’s line replacement program, none had ever been done in the city on a large scale. He added that given the city’s old housing stock, “99%” of the service lines were likely still made of lead. 

But service line replacement is also incredibly expensive, and poorer municipalities like are struggling to fund it. Highland Park’s Water Department has estimated that replacing all of the city’s main and service lines could cost $100 million.

“This is necessary to remove the threat of lead,” Leonard said. “But it does exacerbate the water affordability crisis that’s growing in low-income communities in Michigan.”

Earlier this month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a $500 million plan to upgrade Michigan’s water infrastructure. It’s setting aside $102 million specifically for lead service line improvements. 

While the initiative seems like necessary aid to disadvantaged communities like Highland Park, the funds for service line replacement are loans, not grants, which could put additional strain on cities that already have debt service challenges, according to Garrett. 

“Communities not in good financial standing may be left by the wayside,” he says. “My opinion is the eligibility criteria may need to be reviewed to ensure all communities are able to take advantage of the money.”

Highland Park has already applied multiple times to EGLE’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which provides low-interest loans to eligible water systems. The city has received $6 million from the fund and been approved for another $4.5 million. It’s currently applying for yet another $19.2 million loan. Around 4% of these loans will be forgiven because the city qualifies as a disadvantaged community.

These budgetary challenges will have a direct impact on residents’ water bills. Prior to the announcement of the initiative from the state, Garrett said that Highland Park would have to raise rates to pay for infrastructure upgrades. The Great Lakes Water Authority, which provides water to Southeastern Michigan systems, increases rates every year. 

“We’re in a situation where unless we get new users and tax base to offset the cost, raising rates is something that can’t be avoided,” Garrett said. 

Highland Park has a median income below $16,000 and its residents have regularly had their water shut off for nonpayment. 

In other words, whether or not it’s again below the action level in its next round of testing, lead in water will continue to be a challenge for Highland Park.


Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.

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