Lead water lines in Grand Rapids
 'crisis waiting to happen,' says former city leader

The Grand Rapids Press

By Matt Vande Bunte | mvandebu@mlive.com
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on February 26, 2016 at 9:38 AM, updated February 26, 2016 at 1:31 PM




GRAND RAPIDS, MI - A rough estimate to replace some 17,000 lead water lines in the city is $50 million. The political will to spend that kind of money on that kind of work: Zero.

A former city commissioner thinks it's short-sighted for Grand Rapids to keep lead water lines in the ground, but current city leaders say replacing the lines would be throwing money at a problem that doesn't exist.

"If I learn that it's not enough (what we're doing to keep lead out of the water), that's one thing, but we have to live within a budget so the bottom line is making sure, with the resources we have, that our residents are indeed safe," Second Ward City Commissioner Ruth Kelly said.

 Bill Blickley, a former Third Ward commissioner from 1984 to 1992, thinks Grand Rapids is making a mistake. He pushed for replacement of lead water lines last year when a street on which he owns five properties was torn up.

He now thinks the city should be more proactive in replacing lead lines elsewhere - both the city's portion from the water main in the street to the curb stop in front of a house, and the private portion from the curb stop into the house.

In response to emails from Blickley this month, Kelly - whom Blickley said has been the city commissioner most responsive to him - wrote "there isn't the level of urgency necessitating the expense" because regular testing of Grand Rapids water has found relatively low levels of lead.

"We might alarm people when there is no need for alarm," Kelly wrote.

"That's what they said in Flint: 'There's no problem here,'" Blickley said. "It's a crisis waiting to happen. We have to replace them. We have to be concerned about the kind of water people will drink 50 years from now."

RELATED: Here is what's up with lead water lines in Grand Rapids

Regular testing of Grand Rapids water has found lead levels well below federal limits, dating back to the mid-1990s. Before the city started putting a phosphate coating on lead water pipes in 1994, lead levels were much higher.

The federal action level for lead contamination is 15 parts per billion. The most recent city testing, which is conducted at 50 homes every three years, showed that 90 percent of homes tested had a lead level of 2.2 parts per billion or less. The next lead testing is scheduled this summer.

"We think the health issue has been fully addressed," City Manager Greg Sundstrom said. "The evidence is so strong."

Grand Rapids estimates that there are 17,000 lead water lines between mains in the street and curb stops in front of houses. There likely are more than that running between curb stops and houses because property owners rarely replace their portion of the pipe when the city replaces its portion.

The city offers to finance the replacement of the private portion of the line at 7 percent interest, but it's generally not a popular expense. Blickley said he urged neighbors to pay the cost last year and was unable to persuade many to do it.

Grand Rapids should work with plumbers to replace lead service lines on entire city blocks, either covering the cost from the public purse or placing the cost as a lien on the properties, Blickley said.

"I just think that's poor management," he said. "You need to do preventive maintenance, especially when it's the most economical (and streets are already torn up for sewer or road work).

"The houses that we live in today, we may have title to them and ownership of them, but we aren't going to be the only people living in those. They really are community resources. The city is responsible for our health and safety now and into the future and they need to do whatever it takes to see that those lines from the curb stop into the house are replaced."


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Grand Rapids has not installed lead water lines for the past 80 years. The city keeps records of lead lines on paper files stored in envelopes.

City administrators have an idea of where lead lines are located, but not a good grasp of it, Sundstrom said. The cost of digitizing those files, or replacing the pipes at a rough cost of $3,000 per home, would have to be borne through higher water rates, he said.

Sundstrom said he is working on a proposal to change the interest rate from the current 7 percent to a floating mark that's pegged to market rates.

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said she's more concerned about lead hazards in paint in older houses.

"If we have resources, I'd like to follow the data" that shows lead-based paint is the problem, Bliss said.