Water is the first thing on Phil Shane’s mind when he wakes up every morning.
For more than a year, Shane’s routine has started with a trip downstairs to run the faucet in the basement sink in an attempt to flush the plumbing of his home on Detroit’s west side. Before brushing his teeth or making his first cup of coffee, Shane waits several minutes for the laundry sink to push lead-contaminated water through his pipes.
The daily exercise is not enough to make Shane feel safe enough to let his wife or 1-year-old daughter drink the water. They rely on monthly purchases of bottled water for everything other than showers and sometimes to cook. It’s been a fact of life since last year when Shane and his father Michael, who lives across the street, found elevated levels of lead in their drinking water.
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“Our entire life in that house is encumbered by the lead,” Shane told BridgeDetroit.
Tests conducted by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department as part of its annual water quality monitoring first found lead in samples taken from Michael Shane’s house, between Six Mile and Grand River Avenue, in July 2021. The amount of lead was below a federal standard that requires cities to take action, but health agencies warn that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. The findings were enough to prompt the family to begin regularly testing their water.
More than 40 samples taken over the last year revealed a wide range of lead contamination. Results produced by Paragon Laboratories in Livonia found lead levels several times greater than the 15 parts per billion standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Shanes alerted DWSD to the findings, kicking off a year-long struggle with the city, they said, to verify the results and take action to remove the old lead lines connected to their homes.
Now, in response to the complaints, the city’s water department pledged to replace the service lines on their street with funding from a $10 million grant Detroit received from the state. The Shanes were added to a list of 380 homes with known lead lines that are expected to have lead service lines replaced by next summer thanks to the state funding. Homes on the waiting list were identified either through annual lead water sampling, by city crews repairing nearby public water mains, or because the occupants had signed up online.
The wait list represents a fraction of the homes connected to lead service lines. Sam Smalley, chief operating officer of DWSD, said it could cost upward of $850 million to replace all of Detroit’s lead service lines, which the city has estimated could be as many as 100,000.
The city expects an effort that started in 2018 – after the adoption of state standards requiring all public water systems to start digging up lead service lines – will result in the replacement of 3,000 lines by the end of this year. That’s under 4% of even the most conservative estimate of Detroit’s lead service lines.
That pace is too slow for Gary Brown, director of the water and sewer department.
“We want to go faster,” Brown said. “We just need the money.”
Some dollars are on the way. DWSD expects to dramatically accelerate the removal of lead service lines in the next three years with a new investment of $100 million, including $75 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding as well as dollars from the state and EPA.
Detroit was replacing around 700 lead service lines per year through its Capital Improvement Program since 2018. The city is now poised to replace between 5,000 and 10,000 annually.
It’s progress, but Brown said Detroit can’t ensure it’s free of lead service lines without even more investment from the state and federal government.
“This is really going to jumpstart our program,” Brown said at a Monday press conference of the $100 million investment. “Is it enough to finish the program? No. But this will give us an opportunity to show not only (the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy) but also show EPA that we’re capable of executing programs of this nature at a high level.
“No one wants this to be a 20-year program,” he said. “We want to get this done as soon as possible.”
Shane is also restless to be free of the potential threat posed by drinking water he pays for. Ironically, those bills have gone up thanks to the daily flushing.
“It makes me really consider how long I’m going to stay in that house, but also, until it’s fixed I wouldn’t feel right putting another family there,” he said. “It’s really disheartening. I didn’t put the lead lines in, the city has maintained them.”
Prioritizing vulnerable populations
Michigan has the distinction of having two majority-Black cities that experienced two major crises with lead in their drinking water supply in the last decade. The poisoning of Flint and Benton Harbor serve as a warning to communities across the country.
President Joe Biden put a spotlight on the “damage done” in Flint while pointing to the benefits of his $1 trillion infrastructure bill in January. Vice President Kamala Harris invoked Flint last week during a visit to Southfield where she affirmed the administrations intent “to remove every lead pipe in our nation.”
State investment in lead service replacement has created significant progress in Flint, which reached a major milestone in September, according to state officials, by replacing 95% of its lead service lines. Detroit officials say they need more investment in Michigan’s largest city.
The new funding for Detroit allows the city to begin prioritizing replacement in neighborhoods with known lead lines. Previously, DWSD had to coordinate lead service replacements with planned repairs to water mains as a cost-saving measure. Replacements will be spread throughout the city, but it’s not yet clear who’s on the list.
“We’re putting that plan together right now, but obviously we want to prioritize the most vulnerable populations, which are where children are in the house, especially those that may be bottle-fed,” Smalley said. “We’re coordinating with other city departments about where these vulnerable populations are.”
Detroit partnered with the water analytics company BlueConduit in 2021 to take an inventory of the city’s lead service lines using predictive modeling software. The effort will help Detroit map the location of lead service lines much more efficiently, Brown said. There are at least 10,000 verified data points that suggest lead service connections so far.
Homes slated for a lead service replacement receive a temporary water filter and instructions on how to flush their homes 40 days before the construction starts.
In the meantime, Phil Shane said he’s left with questions. For one: How many Detroit families are in his situation but don’t know it?
“We’re going after it, but a lot of people are not in a situation where they have time to get on the city. I have to take time out of my day to go to meetings (with DWSD officials),” said Shane, who has a sales job in the manufacturing industry. “It’s not convenient, but most people, especially working certain jobs, don’t have that kind of flexibility.”
Shane says he’s taken “extreme measures” to keep his young daughter safe. Her blood was tested for contamination twice this year, since even small amounts of lead can seriously harm a child’s health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead exposure can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, and permanently impact a child’s development.
So far, Shane’s daughter is lead-free. But it’s a constant source of anxiety, Shane said Thursday morning while washing her breakfast blueberries with filtered water from a home dispenser in his dining room.
“We’ve been extremely cautious about making sure she does not get any (potentially contaminated) water in her mouth,” Shane said. “She doesn’t drink any of it, which in and of itself is a stressor, you know, it’s one of those things you wish you didn’t have to worry about. She gets in the tub and you have to be very conscious because she’s a kid. She wants to play in the water, she wants to blow bubbles.”
In an October interview, Brown was quick to note that the Detroit Health Department has not recorded a single case where drinking water was the primary source of elevated lead levels in a person’s blood. The primary threat of lead contamination, he said, is from lead paint in old homes found throughout the city. If a child does test positive for lead in their blood, the Health Department notifies DWSD, Brown said, which immediately tests drinking water in the home.
“If we saw an abnormally high level we replace the line,” Brown said. “We haven’t had to do that.”
‘Over the action level’
The city is in the process of finalizing its annual water quality report, which tests a select group of homes for a variety of contaminants. Last year’s report found that 90% of 51 homes with lead service lines tested had lead levels under the state’s 12 ppb action level. Three homes were above the action level, and were placed on a list for service line replacement through the $10 million state grant.
Smalley said that this year’s results, to be released in July 2023, will show Detroit is again compliant with state regulations. However, three new houses tested above the standard, according to department spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh. Those homes will also be put on the replacement list, he said.
“Are there houses across the city that are above the action level? The answer is yes,” Smalley said.
Water sourced from the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair and Lake Huron are not known to contain lead, according to DWSD. Instead, lead can be released into drinking water from old service lines and home plumbing as the water moves from the city-operated mains.
Detroit prohibited the installation of lead piping for water service lines in 1945, but homes built before then are likely to have a lead pipe that connects the home to the city water main. Water provided to DWSD customers contains a corrosion inhibitor to prevent leaching from lead service lines and other lead components in a home’s plumbing.
Homeowners with lead service lines are encouraged to flush their pipes by turning on the tap for at least five minutes before using the water to drink or cook. This is meant to push out any potential contaminants that settled in the pipes when water wasn’t being used.
Shane said he was shocked to hear DWSD officials tell him that too much flushing can actually be a bad thing. Smalley told BridgeDetroit that “aggressive flushing” can scour the protective coating on pipes meant to prevent lead from leaching into the water.
Shane also wonders about the impact of construction in the area. He said he first noticed sediment coming from his tap around the same time DWSD was replacing water mains on Grand River near his house in 2020. Shane said he hasn’t trusted the water since.
“I basically said ‘there’s sediment coming into my waterline, it’s potentially disturbing this phosphate coating that is supposed to protect us from lead, so there’s obviously something we need to do here,’” Shane said.
Construction can move sediment through city water mains, Peckinpaugh noted, which is why DWSD will flush fire hydrants attached to the water mains. Peckinpaugh said residents and businesses near construction areas are advised to run their taps for five minutes or until the water is clear to remove the sediment from the plumbing.
Shane said it’s difficult to justify paying for any home improvements while waiting for the drinking water to be 100% lead-free. He’s not confident that moving elsewhere in the city would keep his family safe, either.
Removing the lead lines himself isn’t a good option for Shane. He said contractors have estimated it would cost between $18,000 and $25,000 to do it on his own.
DWSD should be able to do the work for $10,000 per line by bundling large contracts. But those costs have more than doubled due to supply chain issues and a lack of contractors, Smalley said.
Brown said Detroit’s ability to remove its service lines comes down to funding and he’s lobbying the EPA to send more money to Detroit.
Smalley argues that Michigan was shortchanged by the $1 trillion infrastructure law signed last year, because it relied on a flawed funding formula. A July study by the Natural Resource Defense Council found the state-by-state funding distribution formula is based on outdated drinking water infrastructure assessments that did not include the cost of fully replacing lead service lines. This means Michigan received an estimated $151 per lead service line, while states with far fewer lead service lines received several thousands of dollars.
“We have people like the Shanes that want this work done,” Smalley said. “We want to do it. We’re not saying ‘no,’ but we’re saying ‘we need help.’ With the poverty levels in Detroit, we can’t just raise the rates to pay for this. The money’s got to come from somewhere.”
Detroiters can request lead testing for their water by visiting detroitmi.gov/leadsafe or calling the Detroit Lead Safe Resource Line at (313) 267-8000.
Residents can call the Detroit Health Department at (313) 876-0133 or contact their healthcare provider to learn about having their child tested for lead if they are concerned about exposure.