EPA Removes Order to Fix Water System

THURSDAY, JUNE 15, 2023


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reportedly released Benton Harbor, Michigan, from an order issued in November 2021 to fix problems with its drinking water safety procedures.

The news arrives as an ongoing lead service line replacement project has reached 99.8% completion, with only 8 pipe replacements remaining. The project was the result of three years of testing that revealed that lead levels in Benton Harbor’s tap water system were too high.

Project Background

Based on preliminary data submitted by water suppliers in 2020, approximately 331,000 service lines across Michigan were known or likely to contain lead—roughly 12% of the total service lines in the state. An additional approximately 314,000 service lines were reportedly of unknown material.

The state’s updated Lead and Copper Rule under the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act requires communities to replace an average of 5% of their total lead service lines (LSLs) each year, totaling 100% replacement in 20 years. However, if a water supply has an action level exceedance, it must increase the replacement rate to 7% each year.

While the LCR did not require Benton Harbor to remove 7% of its LSLs per year, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) proactively ordered the city to do so for the 12 months beginning in July 2021.

In response, Governor Whitmer called for the process to occur on an expedited timeline of 100% replacement over the next 18 months, by March 2023. The administration also secured more than $18 million for LSLs replacements. Almost a year ago, Benton Harbor launched its first round of replacements.

The Associated Press reported that, in December of last year, tests revealed that lead levels in the city’s tap water had dropped, indicating that treatment efforts meant to prevent pipes from leaching lead into drinking water were helping.

According to the Department’s release, state and local officials also reiterated their ongoing commitment to Benton Harbor residents as it moves towards the next phase of reducing in-home lead exposure risks. Lead-reducing filters, bottled water, free home lead inspections and abatement services will reportedly continue to be offered.

As of November last year, Whitmer had announced that the accelerated campaign to replace aging lead water service lines in the City of Benton Harbor was nearing completion, almost five months ahead of schedule. At the time, the project was 99.2% complete, with 4,500 water service lines having been replaced or verified non-lead.

What Now

According to reports, the EPA has released the city from its 2021 order to fix the problem, after officials conducted three inspections to ensure that the southwest Michigan city's water system complies with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Now, the past three, half-year samplings reportedly show that Benton Harbor’s lead levels have declined below the “federal action,” or the level that is considered dangerous enough to public health that corrective actions are needed. The latest reading in the first half of 2022 was 8 ppb, according to the state of Michigan.

“All people deserve access to safe and reliable drinking water, and the community of Benton Harbor is no different. We are pleased that the city has taken action as directed by EPA to protect public health and ensure this crucial access,” said EPA Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore

“Today’s action recognizes the important progress in the community to reduce exposure to lead and better protect the city’s drinking water system from harmful pollution and hazards.” 

The EPA reports that Benton Harbor has demonstrated that all terms of the order have been satisfactorily completed. Additionally, 100% of the lead service lines in the city have been replaced, and the water system has not experienced a lead action level exceedance in any of its three most recent Lead and Copper Rule compliance monitoring periods.

However, termination of the order does not relieve Benton Harbor of the ongoing obligation to comply with the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act and its regulations. The EPA says that it will continue to track compliance of public water systems in Michigan, including Benton Harbor, through routine coordination with the state.

In its role as the primacy agency, the EGLE will reportedly continue to work with the city to maintain compliance with applicable requirements, including overseeing implementation of the water system’s plan for ensuring necessary technical, managerial, and financial capacity to operate and maintain the water system.

The EPA says that its involvement has been “instrumental” to ensure that the people of Benton Harbor are protected from exposure to lead and have access to safe and reliable drinking water, including:

  • Awarding $5.6 million to Benton Harbor under a Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act grant to replace lead service lines and conduct a corrosion control study;
  • Coordinating with the city to award $800,000 to Benton Harbor through community grants for improvements to its public water system;
  • Working with Michigan, the city of Benton Harbor and the drinking water system on medium- and long-term solutions, which are essential to protect the health and well-being of residents;
  • Supporting state efforts to provide bottled water and address the immediate and pressing needs of the community;
  • Conducting three inspections to ensure compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act; and
  • Providing the city a compliance advisor to provide direct, one-on-one technical assistance to the system operator. EPA makes compliance advisors available to small under-resourced drinking water systems nationwide that may lack sufficient expertise.

The EPA also conducted a large-scale filter study in Benton Harbor by analyzing water samples from more than 200 homes. The results reportedly showed that, when used properly, filters are effective at reducing lead in drinking water.

Other MI, Benton Harbor Lead Efforts

In December of last year, the EGLE announced the development of its Corrosion Control Advisory Panel to reduce lead in Michigan drinking water.

The panel members consist of drinking water professionals who will advise drinking water systems with aging lead service lines on effective corrosion control strategies. The panel will report to the EGLE’s Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division, which reportedly regulates 2,685 public drinking water systems under Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule.

According to the release, potential roles of the panel include:

  • Providing advice on strategies to ensure compliance with LCR corrosion protection requirements at drinking water systems where corrosion protection is triggered, is not effective or needs to be optimized;
  • Providing input into the selection and optimization of corrosion protection methods;
  • Advising on interim actions that would be most effective to ensure public protection while corrosion protection is implemented;
  • Recommending and assessing corrosion control studies and evaluating corrosion protection effectiveness; and
  • Identifying metrics used to assess corrosion control effectiveness.

Back in August, the MDHHS announced that it was providing training scholarships to construction firm staff and general laborers. The new scholarship program aims to increase the number of certified individuals to conduct lead-based paint hazard removal.

According to MDHHS, the lead abatement industry needs certified professionals to complete lead paint-related projects across the state, both in terms of finding or testing for lead paint as well as eliminating lead paint from homes and other properties.

While the state has an existing lead workforce hub where professionals can inquire about abatement and investigation certifications, MDHHS is now offering training scholarships to receive certifications as lead abatement workers and/or lead abatement supervisors

Lead abatement eliminates lead hazards in paint, soil, dust and sometimes household plumbing. Some lead abatement activities include replacing windows, doors and other housing components. In order to perform lead abatement in the state of Michigan, workers must hold a Lead Abatement Firm certification.

Construction firm staff and general laborers interested in removing lead-based paint hazards from homes located in the Benton Harbor area can receive training and state certification at no cost through the Lead Workforce Scholarship.

The Department reports that the worker course covers three days of training and requires no prior experience. Supervisors are required to undergo four days of training and must have at least two years of construction-related experience.

Upon completion of training, individuals will need to take an examination from the state to complete certification. MDHHS must approve applications for training prior to taking the courses.

   

Tagged categories: Environmental Control; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); EPA; Health & Safety; Lead; NA; non-potable water; North America; Ongoing projects; Pipeline; Pipes; potable water; Program/Project Management; Water/Wastewater

Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.