EPA eyes changes to lead regulations for drinking water

EPA eyes changes to lead regulations for drinking water
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is outlining its plans to overhaul its regulations on lead contamination in drinking water, hoping to avoid another crisis like that in Flint, Mich.

EPA officials published an 18-page white paper Wednesday previewing potential revisions to what’s known as the lead and copper rule.

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Changes the agency is considering include requiring more proactive replacement of lead water pipes, beefing up mandates for corrosion control technology, changing water sampling standards to better detect high lead levels, and putting a new focus on lead exposure to pregnant women and young children.

The EPA had been working on revising the 25-year-old lead rule for years. But the Flint crisis, and criticisms that EPA officials and regulations were insufficient to protect the city of 100,000, kicked the EPA’s revision efforts into high gear and spurred it to set a goal of proposing a new regulation next year.

“Lead crises in Washington, D.C., and in Flint, Michigan, and the subsequent national attention focused on lead in drinking water in other communities, have underscored significant challenges in the implementation of the current rule, including a rule structure that for many systems only compels protective actions after public health threats have been identified,” the EPA wrote in the paper.

“Key challenges include the rule’s complexity, the degree of discretion it affords with regard to optimization of corrosion control treatment and compliance sampling practices that in some cases, may not adequately protect from lead exposure, and limited specific focus on key areas of concern such as schools,” the agency wrote.

But EPA officials are also using the occasion to highlight successes with the lead rule.

“Data show that from 1976 - 1980 the median blood lead level of a child (1-5 years old) was 15 micrograms per deciliter,” Joel Beauvais, head of the EPA’s water office, wrote in a blog post. “Those levels have been dramatically reduced since then, to 1 microgram per deciliter, based on the most recent data.”

The current rule has faced criticism from numerous people, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who called it “dumb and dangerous” at a House hearing.

Snyder oversaw the Flint emergency manager who ordered the city to switch its water source, leading to the lead crisis.

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who helped discover, document and publicize the Flint crisis, has also long called for an overhaul. He told lawmakers earlier this year that Flint may have been in compliance with the lead rule due to factors such as the discretion that water officials have in sampling techniques.