Whitmer directive: Michigan must accelerate plans to replace lead pipes

Benton Harbor residents gather inside God’s Household of Faith church Saturday. | Anna Gustafson photo

By Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive directive Monday ordering state agencies to ready plans to quickly replace lead pipes using an influx of federal dollars from the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The departments of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE); Treasury; and Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) must “assess strategies  to control the cost of replacing lead service lines without sacrificing capacity” and work with the governor’s office and state lawmakers to expedite plans to replace the aging infrastructure that has led to lead-tainted drinking water in places like Benton Harbor and Hamtramck, Whitmer said.

The governor’s directive comes as Michigan is slated to receive $10 billion from the sweeping $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden last week. Approximately $1.3 billion of that $10 billion is expected to pay for the removal of lead service lines. Lead is a toxic chemical once used in paint and water pipes; exposure to it can cause brain and kidney damage, behavioral problems and even death, among a litany of other health problems. 

“Right now, we have an incredible opportunity to put Michiganders first by using the funds we will be getting under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to ensure every community has safe drinking water,” Whitmer said in a Monday press release.

Once Michigan receives the $10 billion from the federal government, state lawmakers will have to approve how that money is spent. Michigan’s GOP-led Legislature continues to sit on most of another $10 billion the state received in federal COVID-19 funds.

In Monday’s directive, Whitmer specified that “all state departments must work expeditiously to ensure access to federal money for lead service line replacement for communities that have been disproportionately burdened by lead in their drinking water and communities that require financial or technical assistance to use water infrastructure dollars.” 

While it has been decades that lead has been banned in paint and water pipes in the United States, the toxic chemical’s legacy lives on — particularly in communities of color like Benton Harbor, which are more likely to have lead pipes than white areas, according to a 2020 report from the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund of New York.

Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule, a state regulation updated in 2018 following the Flint water crisis, stipulates that utilities must replace 5% of their lead service lines in the state every year, with the goal of entirely replacing Michigan’s approximate 500,000 lead pipes within 20 years. With the federal funding, Whitmer said that timeline can be expedited. 

“With this executive directive, we are accelerating the timeline to replace 100% of lead service lines in Michigan, prioritizing communities that have been disproportionately impacted, fostering enhanced collaboration across departments and ensuring that projects are built by Michigan workers and businesses,” Whitmer said in Monday’s press release. “I look forward to working with the Legislature to invest these dollars and get the job done.”

Under Whitmer’s directive, EGLE must “work with local communities and water contractors to improve flood resiliency” in light of climate change. And the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity needs to work with community colleges, trade associations and labor unions to “build capacity and train the skilled professionals who will build the water infrastructure of Michigan’s future,” the directive said.

Clean water advocates and labor representatives backed Whitmer’s directive. 

“We must use this once-in-a-generation infrastructure investment to replace lead lines, modernize drinking water and sewage plants, and clean up PFAS contamination right away,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For Love of Water (FLOW), a Traverse City-based nonprofit advocating for clean water in Michigan.

“The investment is essential to the public health and prosperity of families and communities, and will support good-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced.”

Jeremy Garza of the Michigan Pipe Trades Association said in a press release that licensed plumbers “stand ready to help with safe and proper installation and replacement of Michigan’s potable water lines.”