EPA revises lead rule, sidestepping calls for more stringent standards

EPA revises lead rule, sidestepping calls for more stringent standards
© Bonnie Cash

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday finalized a rule that will speed notification to homeowners who are drinking lead-tainted water but does not force cities to move more quickly to replace the lead pipes that deliver it.

The agency’s new lead and copper rule was a top priority for EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Former EPA chief to chair pro-Trump think tank's environmental center Lobbying world MORE, who once called water quality one of the most pressing issues for the agency given that “most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out.”

“Today, the U.S. is announcing the first major update of the lead and copper rule in nearly 30 years. This historic action strengthens every aspect of the lead and copper rule, and will help accelerate reductions of lead in drinking water to better protect our children and communities,” Wheeler said in an event to roll out the rule.

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The rule for the first time requires monitoring for lead at primary schools and child care centers and requires cities to notify residents of potential lead exposure within 24 hours. But it doesn’t enact the stricter limit on lead levels in water that advocates argue is necessary to protect health.

It also decreases the speed at which utilities will be on the hook to replace the lead service lines that connect homes to the water supply — a move critics say means lead tainted pipes will remain underground for another 30 years.

“It’s a do nothing rule,” said Betsy Southerland, director of the Office of Science and Technology at the EPA’s Office of Water during the Obama administration. 

“It maintains the exact same lead actions levels we had in 1991 with definitely some improvements in monitoring and notification, but it doesn’t take action on the more substantive thing of replacing more lead service lines than if they had done nothing at all.”

Schools and child care centers must be tested every five years under the rule, and it also pushes utilities away from sampling methods that advocates agree may have underestimated the amount of lead present in homes.

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The rule also creates a 10 parts per billion (ppb) “trigger” level, where cities would be required to reevaluate their water treatment processes and possibly add corrosion-control chemicals to city water.

But it keeps the current 15 ppb level that requires cities to begin replacing the nation's estimated 6 million lead service lines that connect homes to city water supplies — the underlying source of lead contamination. 

Cities will now be required to replace just 3 percent of lead service lines each year rather than the previous 7 percent. EPA also will require cities to do the replacements for two years, rather than just one. The replacements are not required until a city detects high lead levels in 90 percent of the tested taps.

EPA has argued the rule will help ensure that more pipes get replaced by requiring cities to do a census of the lead service lines within their system and still requiring cities to replace pipes even if later testing is below the action level. 

“While the old rule, theoretically, included a 7 percent replacement rate, it was riddled with loopholes and off ramps,” Wheeler said. “We only saw 1 percent being replaced. With our new requirement of 3 percent, we'll see three times the replacement rate under the old rule.”

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The rule does require cities to do full lead service line replacements, avoiding the temporary spike in lead level that can result from cutting into a lead line and replacing only the city-owned side of the line.

But critics still don’t see the replacement figure as being stringent enough.

“EPA’s rule condemns millions of Americans to drink lead-contaminated water for a generation. That’s unjust and illegal,” said Erik Olsen, the senior strategic director for health at Natural Resources Defense Council, noting the 30 year expected time frame for replacing pipes under the 3 percent mandate.

“To protect against the scourge of lead poisoning we must remove the 6 to 10 million lead pipes buried in communities across the country. EPA’s new rule will leave those pipes in use for decades — and in many cases forever. We can, and must, do better.” 

The rule was rolled out the same day the city of Flint, Mich., officially joined a $641 million settlement with residents of the majority-Black community who were exposed to lead tainted water after the city failed to add corrosion control to its water supply after switching water sources.

"We do understand that this announcement is about progress, not perfection," Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley said during the EPA rollout.

While lead exposure is dangerous for people of all ages, the damage is most acute in children, where exposure has been linked to damage of the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development and learning and behavior problems.

Observers were hopeful the Flint incident would push the Trump administration to take an aggressive stance on lead exposure and a commitment to replacing the lead lines that cause them.

“For the past two years, EPA Administrator Wheeler promised he would aggressively address lead exposure, a public health emergency that disproportionately impacts lower-wealth and African American, LatinX and Indigenous children,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, who previously ran EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, wrote in a statement. “With the announcement of today’s rule, Wheeler proved he was never serious about eliminating a threat that impacts millions of children throughout the country."

The water rule follows a Monday rule from EPA that tightened limits on lead dust‚ another rule critics argued could have been more stringent.