The Trump administration today plans to more than double the amount of time the nation's water utilities have to replace service lines with serious lead contamination — a move critics are casting as a rollback that will continue to leave dangerous supply lines in the ground for decades.
EPA's final Lead and Copper Rule would give utilities twice as much time to replace some of the most contaminated lead service lines, according to a final rule obtained by E&E News.
The agency has estimated there are somewhere between 6 million and 10 million lead service lines throughout the country.
The final rule — the first update to federal standards in nearly 30 years — follows the bulk of a proposal EPA released last fall, which the agency has touted as a means of accelerating the pace of replacing lead service lines (Greenwire, Sept. 28).
Specifically, the final rule would drop the rate at which lead service lines need to be replaced.
Currently, utilities are required to remove 7% of lead pipes per year if lead concentrations are found to exceed an "action level" of 15 parts per billion at more than 10% of taps sampled. At that rate, sources say, utilities would have about 14 years to replace those lines.
The final rule would lower that rate to 3% annually, providing about 33 years for utilities to replace lines, according to sources who read the final rule. An EPA official earlier this year confirmed that timeline for replacement (Greenwire, March 31).
The final rule would also institute a "trigger level" of 10 ppb at which utilities would be required to consult state regulators about how to prevent lead pipes from corroding.
Critics have quickly flagged that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water and have called for all lead service pipes to be removed.
"It basically will allow continued use of lead service lines for eternity," said Erik Olson, the Natural Resources Defense Council's senior strategic director for health and food. "It basically assumes only a subset of the lead service lines are going to be replaced, even under the most optimistic scenarios."
But EPA spokeswoman Molly Block in an email countered that criticism, saying the final rule will close enough loopholes in the current regulation to ensure replacement of dangerous lead service lines advances. She also called it "flawed logic" to compare the current rule, put into place in 1991, to the final EPA regulation because thousands of water systems that exceeded federal limits failed to replace those lines due to off-ramps and loopholes.
"At the end of the day, the new Lead and Copper Rule will drive more instances where lead service lines are replaced and replaced in their entirety," said Block.
Olson said closing such loopholes doesn't compensate for slowing the rate of replacement. He also warned that many utilities may not hit the "action level" and wouldn't be required to remove lead service lines, and those protections aren't in place on the state level. Olson said he would prefer that an enforceable standard be imposed across the board.
"There's no enforceable standard at the tap," he said.
Timothy Male, executive director of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, said he's disappointed the rule doesn't create a pathway for total lead service line replacements but added that there will be some improvements under the rule.
"You will see more lead pipe replaced in places that have the biggest problems," he said. "Those places are going to trip this level in this rule and start replacing."
'Knowledge is power'
EPA today is planning to highlight the closure of loopholes, first-of-its-kind testing in schools and day cares, and boosting public knowledge about the location of lead service lines.
The rule, for example, would require all water systems to maintain an inventory of lead service lines and collect tap samples from homes with lead service lines if they're present in the distribution system. That information would be made publicly available.
Another provision would ensure that entire, and not partial, lead service lines are replaced. EPA has said the rule will result in lead pipes being removed sooner because it would close loopholes utilities can currently use to say they have removed more lead pipes than have actually been taken out of the ground.
According to draft talking points obtained by E&E News, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is preparing to unveil the final Lead and Copper Rule today as a "critical step in advancing the Trump Administration's Federal Action Plan to Reduce Childhood Lead Exposures."
Wheeler is also preparing to emphasize that the rule will require testing in schools and child care facilities served by community water systems.
The EPA chief is also planning to stress that "knowledge is power" and the new rules will ensure that utilities inventory lead service lines and that home and building owners have timely information on lead testing and resources, including information on financing options, to help reduce lead exposure.
Block in her email said the final rule and the closure of loopholes would ensure more pipelines are replaced. "Since 1997, more than 14,000 water systems have had an Action Level Exceedance for lead, but only one percent of systems have actually replaced lead service lines as a result due to offramps and loopholes in the old rule," she wrote. "This means that in over 20 years, less than 160 water systems in this country have removed lead service lines as a result of exceeding the federal lead action level in drinking water."
"So please tell me how lead service lines would be replaced in the span of 14 years given that the seven percent regulatory text has been in effect for more than 25 years," she continued.
EPA spokesman James Hewitt made a similar point in an email in October that called it "misleading" to say the rule gives utilities more time to replace lead service pipelines given the large number of loopholes that will be closed.
Hewitt said that in the past, the majority of systems that exceeded the action level never implemented the requirement to remove lead service lines.
"For example, systems could stop replacing lead service lines after one year of samples below the 15 ppb action level. Because of these weakness[es], loopholes and other problems, like testing out and allowing partial lead service line replacements, the rule did not actually compel replacements within 15 years," Hewitt wrote.
"If this were the case, the rule — which is almost 30 years old — would have already required the removal of millions of lead services lines that still remain in place across the country," he said. "So it's a false comparison because replacements rarely happened."
Yet former EPA officials, academics and environmental groups that have focused on lead in drinking water say the rule will indeed provide utilities more time to replace lead service lines, which could have dire consequences. They have also criticized EPA's rule for being overly complex without clarifying what constitutes a violation.
Betsy Southerland, a former staffer in EPA's Office of Water, said the final rule makes improvements to monitoring and public notification similar to provisions in the proposal, but there's no expansion of the number of lead service lines that need to be replaced — because the "action level" is the same — and no acceleration compared with the 1991 rule due to the lower annual replacement rate.
Southerland said the final rule "complicates and impedes enforcement and does nothing to accelerate the replacement of lead service lines," calling it a "heartbreaking failure for all those communities that will have to wait another 30 years for lead to be removed from their drinking water, especially environmental justice communities that will again be most adversely impacted."
Male said that while public inventories of lead service lines are invaluable for the public, he noted that it costs up to $5,000 to replace a full lead service line between a street and a home, for example.
Many people, he added, don't have that kind of money, and financial assistance can be complicated. Under a better rule, he said, all utilities should have a plan for proactively replacing lead service lines.
"I don't think they did nearly enough to address disadvantaged and vulnerable populations," said Male.