EPA is calling on utilities to eliminate the largest source of lead contamination in drinking water with a proposal to require removal of all lead pipes within the next decade.
“Everyone in this country should be able to turn on their tap for a glass of water and know that it’s safe to drink,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said at a press briefing for the lead and copper rule improvements.
Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system and the brain, particularly in babies and small children, who can suffer lifelong cognitive and behavioral impairment as the result of lead exposure.
If finalized, the proposed regulation would be the strictest standards for lead in drinking water since rules were first written more than 30 years ago.
The proposal also follows through on a promise from President Joe Biden early in his administration to remove 100 percent of lead pipes.
Though new lead pipes have been banned in the United States since the 1980s, there are still an estimated 9.2 million lead service lines across the country.
Current regulations for the neurotoxin in drinking water allowed those pipes to remain in place as long as utilities were using chemicals to control corrosion and prevent lead from seeping into the drinking water on the way from the treatment plant to the tap.
Even when such efforts were ineffective, current rules only required utilities to replace a small percentage of lead pipes that were causing contamination.
That makes the Biden proposal “a real game changer,” says Betsy Southerland, a former director of science and technology in EPA’s office of water who is now with the Environmental Protection Network.
“I mean, wowza,” she said. “Because no matter what the levels of lead are at the tap, within 10 years, those pipes have to be out. This is the ultimate fix.”
The proposal won’t be finalized for months and is still subject to change. First, EPA will collect public comments on the proposal for 60 days and hold a public hearing in mid-January.
EPA has faced pressure to revamp its lead regulations since the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan. But cost has always been a major barrier to requiring widespread replacement of lead pipes.
EPA’s own estimates put a $20-$30 billion price tag on the new lead proposal. But Biden administration officials say the majority of that funding is ready to be spent, with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law dedicating $15 billion to lead pipe removal. Another $11.7 billion in general drinking water funding is available to states through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and can be used for lead pipe replacements.
What’s more, the Biden administration estimates that the new rule would actually generate annual economic benefits between $9.8 billion and $34.8 billion, largely due to fewer children and adults suffering cognitive and behavioral impairments from lead exposure.
“The bottom line is that lead poisoning is preventable,” White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said. “This is a problem we can and will solve to save more children and families from facing it.”
Under the proposal, most utilities would be required to remove all lead pipes over the next decade. The regulation would specifically require water systems to replace a minimum of 10 percent of their lead pipes annually and to create inventories of all lead pipes to ensure they don’t miss any.
The regulation does not require utilities to pay to replace the portion of lead pipes that are on private property, however utilities can only access the $15 billion infrastructure bill funding if they replace whole pipes, not solely the publicly owned portions of them.
The administration says it has already handed some $3.5 billion of the funding over to utilities to begin removing lead pipes. Separately, EPA has provided more than $796 million of water infrastructure grants and loans to help utilities serving disadvantaged communities begin removal of lead service lines.
Environmental advocates are already heralding the proposed rule as a massive victory for public health.
“To finally have a rule that mandates the removal of lead pipes is exactly what the government should be doing,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician based in Flint, whose research exposed the drinking water crisis there. “We have paid the price of our inaction … this has been a long time coming.”
Erik Olson, senior strategic director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed, calling the proposal “a ray of hope that we are approaching the day when every family can trust that the water from their kitchen tap is safe, regardless of how much money they have or their ZIP code.”
Still, he said he had concerns that the EPA proposal did not do enough to protect the public from spikes in exposure during the 10 years before lead pipes would be eliminated.
Under the proposed rule, when water sampling shows lead present at 10 micrograms per liter or higher, utilities would be required to inform the public of lead contamination and take action to immediately reduce lead exposure, through adjusting corrosion control mechanisms, for example. Also, utilities would be required to provide lead filters to all consumers if corrosion controls are not adequate and they repeatedly exceed the action level.
That action level is currently 15 micrograms per deciliter, but Olson says it should be 5 micrograms per deciliter to be in line with standards recommended by Canada and European governments. He also wants to see requirements that utilities test tap water specifically at schools and day cares.
Reaction from drinking water utilities has also varied. The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, a trade organization for publicly owned water systems, said its members “are committed to providing clean and safe drinking water to all Americans” but noted that removing lead pipes required cooperation between water systems and homeowners, as well as adequate state and federal funding and technical expertise.
“AWWA urges EPA to focus on providing drinking water systems with the resources and tools necessary to achieve this ambitious goal, and working toward eliminating the real barriers that exist for many utilities,” CEO Tom Dobbins said.
But Kareem Adeem, director of the Newark Water and Sewage Department, who appeared on an EPA press call announcing the new regulation, called it a “historical moment.”
Lead levels in drinking water there spiked in 2017 when corrosion control treatment failed. But the New Jersey city has since been able to remove all its lead pipes with the help of federal funding.
“Everyone probably won’t like it, but this is a much-needed revision,” he said. “The most important thing is to protect current and future generations from lead exposure in drinking water.”
On Capitol Hill, the proposal garnered praise from Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Materials Subcommittee ranking member Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.).
“This is a huge win for public health and a game-changer for the countless communities across the country that have had to struggle too hard, and too long, with basic access to safe, clean drinking water,” they said in a statement.
Reporter E.A. Crunden contributed.