Energy & Environment

Groups sue EPA over ‘backwards’ lead rule

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Environmental and civil rights groups are suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over a new lead rule critics argue doesn’t do enough to remove the lead pipes that contaminate drinking water. 

The December rule will speed notification to homeowners who are drinking lead-tainted water and kicks off more robust testing requirements at elementary schools and child care centers.

However, the rule does not force cities to move quickly to replace the estimated 6 million lead service lines across the country that deliver lead-tainted water into homes.

“This rule is a major disappointment,” Suzanne Novak, an Earthjustice attorney leading the case, said in a release. “Communities exposed to dangerous levels of lead in water expected the new rule to focus on removing lead pipes from the ground, the actual remedy to keep families safe. Instead, the new rule took a huge step backwards by slowing down the replacement rate of lead service lines. The Trump administration is failing the country once again, this time as it walks out the door. Children will continue to be poisoned, with no end in sight.”

The NAACP, United Parents Against Lead, Newburgh Clean Water Project and the Sierra Club all joined the suit, which petitions the court to review the legality of the rule.

The Natural Resources Defense Council also filed a similar but separate suit challenging the rule.

Cities will now be required to replace just 3 percent of lead service lines each year rather than the previous 7 percent. The 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.

Critics say that means lead tainted pipes will remain underground for another 30 years, leaving children particularly vulnerable to brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development, and learning and behavioral problems.

The EPA would not comment on the litigation but has previously 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 while 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,” EPA Administrator Andrew 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.”

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.

“Have we learned nothing from Flint? The Trump EPA’s weak and illegal rule will condemn another generation of children to drinking lead-tainted tap water,” Erik Olson, Natural Resources Defense Council’s senior strategic director for health, said in a release.

The suits follow a decision by the state of Michigan to charge nine people in connection with the Flint water crisis, including former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R).

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