EPA to overhaul rule on testing for lead contamination

The Environmental Protection Agency is set to propose an overhaul of a decades-old rule on testing for lead contamination in drinking water.

The agency is touting the new guidelines as a significant step to reduce the presence of lead in the nation’s drinking water supply and as evidence of the Trump administration’s commitment to ensuring clean water across the U.S. But critics say the changes will actually slow down the process of removing lead from cities’ water systems.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler will roll out the proposed rule, which the agency says is the first “major” overhaul of the Lead and Copper Rule since 1991, during an event in Green Bay, Wis., on Thursday afternoon.

“Today, the Trump Administration is delivering on its commitment to ensure all Americans have access to clean drinking water by proposing the first major overhaul of the Lead and Copper Rule in over two decades,” Wheeler said in a statement. 

“By improving protocols for identifying lead, expanding sampling, and strengthening treatment requirements, our proposal would ensure that more water systems proactively take actions to prevent lead exposure, especially in schools, child care facilities, and the most at-risk communities.”

Critics, though, are pushing back on the agency’s claims, arguing that the changes may actually slow progress on removing lead from water.

The rule does not lower the lead action level as many public health experts had hoped. Those experts say the current level, 15 parts per billion (ppb), is too high to meaningfully reduce the blood lead levels of children who are exposed. 

Instead of lowering the lead action level, the rule establishes a new two-tier system for addressing lead contamination.

When a city’s water hits a new 10 ppb “trigger” level, cities would be required to reevaluate their water treatment processes and possibly add corrosion-control chemicals to city water.

The agency is touting the new trigger level of 10 ppb, saying it would “enable systems to react more quickly should they exceed the 15 ppb action level in the future.” 

At the heart of the issue is how to deal with the nation’s estimated 6 million lead service lines that connect homes to city water supplies. 

One improvement in the proposal is that cities would be required to replace a lead service line if a homeowner replaces their portion of the line. 

Only at 15 ppb must cities begin to replace all of their lead service lines. Under the new proposal, though, cities would be required to replace 3 percent of lead service lines each year — lower than the current requirement of 7 percent.

Critics worry easing regulations on how quickly cities must replace their pipes will ensure lead stays in the system even longer.

“It’s really just like window dressing to try to make it look like they were being much more stringent when in fact the real action level stayed exactly the same, and they lowered the percent of upgrades to 3 percent from 7 percent. That’s very disappointing,” said Betsy Southerland, who was director of the Office of Science and Technology at the EPA’s Office of Water under the Obama administration.

The new EPA rule does not account for lead in pipes in people’s homes, leaving it up to individuals to voluntarily pay to replace any lead pipes in their own homes.

High levels of lead exposure can be extremely harmful and even cause death. Lead exposure is especially worrisome for children, who can experience cognitive disorders and neurological defects when exposed at certain levels. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s no safe level of lead in children’s blood.

Worries about lead exposure from drinking water gained new attention in 2015 after the water contamination scandal in Flint, Mich.

Wheeler has previously said the Obama administration waited too long to act in Flint, where residents were drinking water with alarming levels of lead.

“Part of the problem with Flint was there was a breakdown in once they got the data, once the city of Flint, the state of Michigan, the Obama EPA – they sat on it,” Wheeler told CBS in March. “We’re not doing that. As soon as we get information that there’s a problem, we’re stepping in, we’re helping the local community get that water system cleaned up.” 

–Updated at 2:37 p.m.

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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