Water utilities would have to conduct stricter testing for lead in drinking water and provide clearer warnings to the public under changes proposed yesterday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
If adopted, the changes to the nation's Lead and Copper Rule would be the first to strengthen health protections since the rule was implemented in 1991, and would affect communities served by all 161,000 water systems in the country, EPA officials said.
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Under the proposal, utilities would be required to give homeowners the results of water tests conducted at their homes and to notify state and federal regulators before making changes in water treatment.
The EPA said the changes reflect the lessons learned from the District, where high levels of lead were detected in the drinking water beginning in 2002. Many residents and city officials did not learn of the extent of the problem until 2004, when The Washington Post reported that the drinking water in thousands of homes had excessive levels of lead. Later reporting found that many utilities across the country had failed to inform communities about the degree of lead contamination in their drinking water.
Lead is a highly toxic metal that can cause neurological and developmental damage when ingested, especially in small children. It typically gets into drinking water when water is not treated properly, becomes corrosive and leaches lead from plumbing.
"We need to free people from worrying about lead in their drinking water," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water. "This plan will increase the accuracy and consistency of monitoring and reporting, and it ensures that where there is a problem, people will be notified and the problem will be dealt with quickly and properly."
Utilities often misinterpreted and misapplied the law. Grumbles said that greater clarity on testing rules will give utilities "fair warning" about how to comply. Before the changes can be implemented, they must be reviewed internally at the EPA and approved by the Office of Management and Budget.
Environmental groups and water-quality scientists criticized the proposed revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule as stopping far short of fixing problems that allowed health risks in the District's water to go unaddressed for more than a year. For example, one revision would require utilities to notify regulators before they change their water treatment. But in the District, the Washington Aqueduct did notify the EPA before changing its disinfectant chemicals in 2000, a change now widely viewed as triggering the lead problem.
Critics also said the EPA's lack of commitment to enforcing law already on the books -- and its failure to fix other major flaws in the rule -- would continue to put millions of Americans in danger of heightened lead exposure in their water.
"It's basically revisions at the margins," said Paul Schwartz of Clean Water Action. "EPA refuses to acknowledge this is a national problem even when confronted with the evidence. The fact is EPA has not taken enforcement action upon utilities for their failure to adhere to the current rule."
One provision would require utilities to notify homeowners of the results of any tests to measure lead in their water. Most provisions would clarify existing testing requirements that utilities had applied or interpreted differently.
Rick Maas, a water quality expert and co-director of the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, said the EPA's revisions "solve maybe 5 to 10 percent of the problem" with the Lead and Copper Rule.
Since 1991, the EPA standard has stated that if more than 10 percent of homes tested have lead levels higher than 15 parts per billion, the water should be deemed a health risk. Maas said that arbitrary standard leaves 9 percent of homeowners in danger of exposure to high lead levels and allows a water system to falsely proclaim the water is safe for everyone to drink.
Large trade organizations representing water utilities reacted favorably to the EPA proposals.
"Our view is, utilities should be doing these things, and these are basically reasonable," said Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association.
Curtis said the EPA revisions should help clarify testing requirements in a rule that is "extremely complicated."
A review of water testing data showed that dozens of utilities had been ignoring the lead rule and that many manipulated their test results in ways that artificially reduced the lead level they reported to regulators and the public.
In New York City, for example, the city water agency for years had concealed hundreds of test results from regulators. If the results had been counted as required by law, the city would have exceeded the national safety standard for lead in three of the previous four years and been forced to launch expensive fixes.
"There were very different understandings of what was required, and that needs to be resolved," Curtis said. ". . . We really do care about the safety of the water. Nobody who works in a utility wants to deliver unsafe water."