Ludington City Council February 13, 2017: Official's Admit Lead Pipes are in the City's System

(Sorry for the delay in this report, some extra research was needed, and last week's weather wasn't typical February weather.)

If you looked in the next day's City of Ludington Daily News (COLDNews) or listened to the local radio for news of the February 13, 2017 Ludington City Council meeting, you would have to believe that the meeting centered around the long term contract negotiations with the current waste haulers.  The E-edition of the COLDNews had that item exclusively, the print edition was nearly 90% based on that topic.

Yet, the contract, which was only brought to the public's attention on February 11th, had saw some discussion on social media during that short period, mostly against the new terms which included a discontinuance of the popular spring cleanup program and other changes (see records beginning on p. 37 of the packet).  What seemed to be missing from the discussions which involved dozens of people on Facebook's Concerned Ludington group, a couple of citizens and the officials at the meeting, and the owner of the company was the economical comparisons of the two alternatives, their annual adjustments, and the lack of any alternative bidders.

Four years back, a guy named Darrell Finstermacher came before the city hall court and made a simple request to put his name in a hat and give him a chance to be the city's waste hauler after the council had been given only one company to choose from.  There has been no reputable competitive bidding process for the waste-hauling contract in Ludington during this millennium. 

Now, four years after Finstermacher, City Manager John Shay once again avoids the city charter mandated competitive bidding process, for something which is a significant part of the annual budget.  Undoubtedly, he will use the same rationale he has before about being concerned that the current waste hauler will submit a less desirable deal for the city as they did back in 2002.  He fails to tell us that the city manager at that time (Jim Miller) was on his way out and appears to have messed up the bidding process intentionally when the council made him do it after he lazily tried to do it without.

A FOIA request has been sent to the city to see whether there was any attempt at bidding this time around.  This is important; if there is no competition, the current waste hauler can set their own rates rather than bidding low to win the contract from other waste haulers like Mr. Finstermacher.  The sad thing is that the city manager and the councilors he controls would likely do what they have in other bidding processes and not pick the lowest bid.  Such a process is not competitive bidding, it is cronyism, an unethical manner of selecting contractors that corruptly takes money away from taxpayers and public projects.

Thankfully, the city council voted to send this contract back to the committee level to be further discussed and brought before the council again.  I spoke before the meeting with Republic Service's owner Matt Biolette, who also spoke at the meeting when this issue came up.  He was a charming enough fellow who said he admired how I came before the council and spoke of the issues.  I cannot be sure that alone jinxed him in the eyes of some councilors who may have heard us talking.

Other business that came before the meeting was the approval of the Lakestride Marathon events, and approval of 2016 Budget amendments.   These amendments made a budget that was expected to run $41,600 in the red into one that finished $269,600 in the black, and reflected the differences at the end of the year between the budget and what was actually spent last year.  Much of this came from an unexpected reimbursement from the city's insurer.

They adopted water and sewer bonds loan resolutions for over $2 million each to pay for the work on city streets located in the Fourth Ward and on the northeastern part of the city.  They made other resolutions too, to support PM Townships acquisition of Dow property to the south of PM Lake, and to become a Redevelopment Ready Community (with a lot less discussion than we did in the Is Our Community Ready for the Redevelopment Ready Community Program? article).  To get council approval nowadays, all you need to tell them is that the city will no longer qualify for other grant programs, which they equate with public money they are entitled to.

What I found more interesting (next to the Shop with a Cop confrontation made by Chief Barnett at the end of the meeting) was the year end reports made by the Water, Wastewater and Utility Maintenance Supervisors of the city.  The reports themselves were mostly plain and uncontroversial and can be read in their entirety in the council packet, the supervisors themselves were there and able to answer questions thrown out by the councilors. 

What made this otherwise boring material of particular interest to me was how they would play the reports into trying to refute or distort some of my assertions of the previous year dealing with water and wastewater issues that came forth:  the itemization and costs of the upgrades, the 2012 spillage of 2 million gallons of wastewater into the PM Lake, the bogus claims of city officials over lead in the water, the lead-ership role our city has established in our kids having high blood levels and the city utility's indifference to it. 

Having only three minutes, I decided to concentrate on the last issue of lead.  The city had yet to do anything other than say they hadn't anything to do with it, and that they weren't going to do anything other than the testing the MDEQ mandates, which they handled improperly but refused to say so.  They kept to that basic line when they asked questions of the department heads after I said the following: 

February 13th, 2017 Ludington City Council meeting from Mason County District Library on Vimeo.

XLFD (3:00 into the video)  "Ignoring a problem won't make it go away.  Water Plant Supervisor Malzahn gives his 2016 report tonight,  it ignores problems I have brought forth to this forum.  It hasn’t been Flint and Genessee County, but Ludington and Mason County that has been leading the state, with kids testing positive for high blood lead levels for the last three years.  How can we do that if it's not because of the drinking water, with our city providing that utility for much of the county?

 

Does our city utility even try to rule that out?  No, they test 20 homes as mandated, with a significant portion of those houses being built since lead was outlawed in building materials, and a significant portion of those houses owned by city officials who definitely have conflicted interests.  The first draw tests may determine that the home owner has lead pipes directly underneath their water tap, but won't detect if there's any lead further down the system that is out of their hands, the city's old pipes mostly laid out well before the Safe Drinking Water Act.

 

Ignoring a problem won't make it go away.  Ludington Superintendent Andrea Large is a hero in my book.  Thirty years ago, the federal government came out with lists of water coolers commonly used in schools that had lead fixtures.  Proactive schools would have looked through this list and replaced bad fountains.  That didn't happen here; Ms. Large noticed our area's poisoned children in the state data and wanted to find out whether the school had any part in it. 

 

It turned out that we still had water fountains that should have been taken out three decades ago giving out dangerous levels of lead to our most precious resource.  Instead of keeping it secret, she corrected the problem and told the public about it.  That is heroism, and what we need in public officials.

And yet, these fountains in our schools cannot be the source of all our ills, because lead is being found at high rates in kids who haven't even went to school.  How do you explain that?  Lead paint in the home?  Then why do some counties with a higher rate of older houses not have any cases of elevated lead in their kids' blood?  I've asked this panel for answers before, I may have well as been talking to myself.

Ignoring a problem won't make it go away.  Nor will ignoring your constituents."

As I've noted, the 2016 annual reports from the department heads did little to bring out this problem or the others mentioned.  They focused on the use (water usage way up due to the Michigan Power contract, sewer usage down) and touched lightly on the aeration system failing at the WWTP, but it took questioning by councilors, primarily by Winczewski and Krauch, to get their narrative out.  As often happens with our officials, however, the plan they had wound up backfiring.  But would the public notice?

Water Plant Superintendent Kurt Malzahn begins his report at the 45:00 mark with news of the costly improvements at the WTP and stays at the lectern for 23 minutes.  The questioning begins after about ten minutes from Councilor Winczewski who at 54:40 asks the first lead-ing question:  Is the water treatment plant within acceptable limits for lead?

Malzahn says they follow the safe drinking water act and test sites where there are volunteers and copper pipes, with most homes built between 1983 and 1988, the "state's fine with that".

As we have noticed in Flint, the Michigan DEQ was fine with their protocols.  Malzahn comes close but never says that the city tests only "Tier 1" sites, and he surely doesn't indicate that when the testings take place.  The state DEQ has a special form that should go with a testing sample sent to them; it wasn't included in the city's submissions in 2011 and 2014 (that I've received through FOIA). 

This form should have been sent in with the test results in those years; it wasn't and it indicates to me that the city and the MDEQ are not doing their due diligence in carrying out the law.  It also indicates that the city manager and chief of police have houses that either have lead service lines or copper lines with lead solder in them, because Ludington has more than twenty houses with a Tier 1 classification (as will be noted by the utility maintenance supervisor), and these would be the ones at the top of the testing list before any others are tested. 

 

I find it hard to believe that John Shay would allow his growing children to be in a house with such plumbing; one must wonder why he hasn't did something about the lead and lead soldered pipes in the fifteen years he has been there. 

Councilor Krauch prefaces his questions by saying that Ludington's water is the best he has ever drank (we have the best tasting paint chips too),  and asked Malzahn about what changed the situation in Flint to make lead a problem; he gives a good explanation of what happened.  The only change we have made through the years in Ludington according to Malzahn is reducing fluorine in the water, which actually makes the water less active in pipes.  He notes the city is not responsible for the indoor plumbing or the service line.


Along Krauch's line of inquiry is the selection of houses ("Not all of the properties you test are city officials?")  Again, Malzahn avoids talking of tiers, and the known presence of lead in the service line or beyond.  Krauch ends by asking if Ludington water is safe to drink.  After Malzahn hems and haws, Krauch reframes it to ask is it safe after it leaves the WTP, which is affirmed.  Shay finishes up with a question asking about whether there would be any house on the list built after the 1988 period, to which Malzahn says no, which reflects the testing data.

The WWTP supervisor's report stays more to the course and lasts fifteen minutes with questions being considered.  Nothing much was learned here other than the City is still keeping the projected extent of the WWTP improvements under wraps.  The two month smell emanating throughout the city and county from the WWTP should not reoccur with their aerosol Band-Aid and agreements with an industrial user (the House of Flavors) in place. 

Darrell Plamondon, the Utility Maintenance Supervisor, was the last report-maker and easily the briefest at under five minutes, but he had the most memorable tidbit amongst his answers to questions from the council. 

Councilor Winczewski (1:27:10):  Darrell, have you ever seen a lead service pipe, underground in the city of Ludington?

Plamondon:  I personally have not, I've been here for 17 years and I've not seen a complete lead line, no.  We do have what are called "lead goosenecks", quite a few of them actually, and that's what connects the galvanized line from a resident's personal water line to the water main.

Winczewski:  So, are those goosenecks, um, personal responsibilities?  Like if I had one, it would be my line?

Plamondon:  In the city of Ludington, the homeowner is responsible from the tap of the main to the house, so technically yes, it would fall under the homeowner's responsibility.

And so in just a few short interchanges we find that there are quite a few lead goosenecks in our water system, and Darrell Plamondon has the legal acumen to know that these goosenecks are not the city's responsibility even though the city's utility maintenance initially installed these devices and have never removed them from the city-owned utility service line (see illustration). 

This EPA link tells us:  "Your house might also have a short segment of lead pipe — commonly called a "lead gooseneck" — that connects the water main to the service line. You cannot inspect the gooseneck since it is under the street."  This 2016 Mlive article tells us that the City of Ann Arbor staff told them: 

"The portion of service pipe from roughly the water main to the sidewalk is owned by the city. The remaining pipe running to the home is owned by the property owner. The city does not have information on the material used for the property owner portion. Prior to 1950, it was common to use galvanized iron as a material for service pipes from the street to the home. The short connection between the iron service and the water main is made with a piece of lead pipe about 1/2" in diameter and about 2' long. These connections are commonly referred to as "goose necks" because of the shape."

So not only are these goosenecks admittedly plentiful and part of the City of Ludington's water system, their utility maintainers believe they are not the city's responsibility, and so you can be certain they don't automatically try to change them out.  The supervisor indicates that isn't a priority, it's the homeowner's responsibility after all, even though they could never get under the street to remove them. 

Pretty bizarre, but then it really gets super-bizarre at the end when Councilor Kathy Winczewski, an officer of the local environmental group (AFFEW) who should have caught these problems sums the discussions up with this pearl of wisdom that belays her good intentions towards the environment:

(1:45:30 in)  "We've been dealing with this lead issue in the city of Ludington for quite a while, and so tonight I just took some notes and I would just like to summarize.  First of all, our water treatment plant meets all regulations set by the MDEQ on anything that leaves our water plant especially lead...  There's no lead in any pipes that we know of in the city, so in 19 years that Darrell has been down in those holes, he has not noticed any lead pipes down there... I think as Ludington city council, we have addressed all these issues, and unless situations change or new information is brought forward, the city council can put this concern aside." 

Mayor PT Castonia:  Thank you councilor. 

And it was left at that.  Here are the facts:  in 2013, Mason County with its flagship city Ludington leading the stats, had easily the highest rate of lead in our kid's blood stream in the state, a statistical outlier.  Even with the Flint water crisis underway, the county came in second in 2014 and 2015 in those same stats.  Two of our elementary schools had water fountains that tested well above the danger zone for lead, since for 30 years, school administrators hadn't had the time to look at a list of lead-lined water fountains and note they still had some giving kids megadoses of lead.

And the City of Ludington who runs our system claims it's not their fault, they fail to run their tests properly, testing houses they know are not Tier 1 sites, or even try to justify that they are.  They know there are quite a few lead goosenecks out there, originally installed by the City, within the city's service plumbing, and accessible only to city workers.  Yet somehow they can make an absurd claim that they are not responsible.  Gosh, in summation, they even undisputedly amongst themselves claim all these two foot gooseneck piping are not lead pipes in the city.  Yes they are, and they are the city's responsibility guys, just like they are in Flint, Ann Arbor, and all those other towns across America.

To hear the city council, effectively the 'board of directors' for Ludington's water utility agree to the point that the lead problem, a very real concern to any local parent, is not of concern to them anymore should make you doubly angry, since there very definitely is a problem according to health records, and they actually took several steps in admitting the same at this meeting, and their culpability by claiming their innocence when they are anything but.

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The property owner I believe is responsible from the water shut off not the main. maybe I'm wrong. When I replaced my water main to my house, I excavated dirt down to the shut off valve at the street edge of the sidewalk. The city shut off the water valve upon request so I could remove and replace my main supply line. That hook up was to a brass valve that was connected to a black iron pipe from the main. No lead was see so that goose neck must be at the main. One thing to note is that the city has water department records on each property dating back into the 1800's.

Yes, and if they get any further cornered on the subject, maybe they can come up with another graph, like the P.M.Bayou. That one showed that the city was only 29% responsible, and the rest fell on PM Twnshp., State of Mich., and Drain Commissioner, and a few more. Another Kathy Moonbeam incident of further collusion, and irresponsibility. Bravo right?

I have never seen this graph, does anyone have a link to it? This was something the council came up with? Any more info on this would be appreciated! Thank you.

I meant the graph Aquaman spoke of about the PM Bayou. I sure hope someone will share it with me. In my opinion this could all be related? The stuff that was put in the dump east of Madison, capped off? God only knows what went in there and the off gassing of naturally occurring natural gas has no smell! If there were heavy metals, also chemicals used to harden steel like cyanide? The natural flow by looking at DNR mapping shows a northerly flow out of the pier heads. If only we could be addressed and not attacked? We are all in the same game! DNR tested the ground under the bayou, not the water. Also, they NEVER said it was not contaminated, just not to the extent of a brownfield, thank God!

The graphic in the article shows that the utility provider is responsible for the plumbing between the water main and the shut-off valve, these are all generally found in the public right-of-way, which our city claims ownership of whenever it helps their cause.  According to Darrell Plamondon, who I have found to be fairly straightforward, the goosenecks were connecting galvanized pipes to the water main, i.e. they were part of the city's plumbing.  Plamondon to my knowledge, has never passed a bar exam, so I would have to believe his understanding of the law is due to either the city manager's or city attorney's reasoning.

For Aquaman's point:  have you ever heard of John Shay or Dick Wilson 'fessing to anything the city has done improper?  They are always too busy blaming the victims of their brutal cops and policies.

The drawing is not really correct as it shows the city is responsible to the meter. I own a number of houses in ludington and all have them in the basement. If the city is responsible to the meter , who do I get a refund from for the lines I have replaced from the curb shut off to my houses.  To my knowledge, the property owner is responsible for sewer lines to the main as I have done that also.

All of the homes that are part of the lead testing process in Ludington should be inspected to see if any of the piping system from the main to the house contain lead piping of any kind. An accurate calculation of the lead  content of Ludington's residents water cannot be correctly measured unless all the different types of service piping to buildings are included in the testing. My guess is that most of Ludington's older neighborhoods have a portion of piping which is lead. It's possible that many have solid lead from the main to the building. Also most cities claim responsibility for all piping from the main to the meter which in most cases is inside the buildings. Even though there may be lead piping from the main to a building it's possible that no lead or very small amounts will be detected because most pipes are coated on the inside with minerals and debris from the water running in the pipes. Most of the lead will be found after water has been sitting in the pipes for long periods of time and that's why running the tap for several minutes is recommended in order to clear the line before consuming it. I'm sure the water personnel have informed the Government officials of the huge cost in replacing the lead portions of the water piping and this is why we get al of the ho humming and stall tactics in finding out what is the true amount of lead in Ludington's water. If the water officials do not know what pipes are lead or where all the "goosenecks" are located then they have done a poor job of record keeping and statistical data accumulation.

I don't expect they have great records of their piping put into the ground before 1950, most cities don't and it's a shame.  They surely have not provided anything throughout this mostly one-sided lead conversation, other than their recent admissions of lead goosenecks found throughout the system.  As Plamondon has noted, the goosenecks generally lead to galvanized piping, so if you see this form of plumbing at where the city puts the cutoff valve (so they can cut off service to your house if need be) extending towards the street, there's likely a fair chance you still have a lead gooseneck connection.

Stump makes a very valid point about the water meters, quite often they are inside the basement of houses, and thus the diagram is not entirely accurate in that case.  It's a common practice to do that, but it still does not belay the fact that the meter is part of the city's property, as is the plumbing up to the cut-off valve.  As this link to another city utility shows and details: 

Whose responsibility are the water lines in my home?  The Town owns and maintains all water service lines throughout the Town and to the point of connection at your property line. Your property will have a meter pit or curb stop with a valve and is the property of the Town. Lines from this valve into your home as well as all of the lines in your home, including sewer, are the homeowner’s property and responsibility.

Keep in mind, even though your water meter may be located within your property, it belongs to the Town. Tampering or damage to the meter is prohibited and reasonable access to this meter is required.

I could not see how our municipality could legitimately claim that the lead goosenecks under the street in front of your house that they installed with your ancestors' tax dollars is your responsibility to deal with.  I certainly can't find such a rule or claim in the city code. 

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