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Federal lead-pipe rule overhauled for first time in decades

But the government is allowing many of the nation’s 6 million lead water pipes to remain in service, and health advocates say risks remain

Bottled water is loaded into a car in Flint, Mich., in 2018. In 2014, the drinking water in Flint was found to be contaminated with lead, leading to an ongoing public health crisis. (Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post)
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For the first time in three decades, the federal government on Tuesday overhauled a rule aimed at reducing lead in drinking water across the country — a long-standing scourge made worse by the nation’s weathered and crumbling infrastructure.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s lead and copper rule, widely criticized as complicated, poorly enforced and too weak to protect the health of many Americans, has not been revised since 1991, when George H.W. Bush was president.

The 409-page updated version will for the first time require water utilities to test for lead at schools and child-care facilities and establish a new “trigger level” for contamination at which systems must review their water treatment procedures and consult with state regulators on potential improvements.

It closes some loopholes in the previous rule — such as requiring utilities to test water quality in areas where it is not known whether service lines contain lead — but it also extends the time frame for replacing pipes with high levels of contamination from 14 years to about 33.

“This historic action strengthens every aspect of the lead and copper rule and will help accelerate reductions of lead in drinking water and better protect our children and communities,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

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But advocates said the Trump administration’s approach does not include the most important step to getting lead out of U.S. drinking water — requiring the removal of the estimated 6 million or more lead service lines that remain underground throughout the nation.

Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that accumulates in the body and is particularly damaging to young children, causing brain damage, developmental and behavioral problems, and learning disabilities. There are no safe levels of lead exposure for children.

“To us it is a bitter disappointment,” said Erik Olson, a drinking-water expert and senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The fundamental problem is we’re going to leave millions of lead service lines in the ground for decades, and that’s going to mean generations of kids’ health will suffer.”

The EPA’s revamped rule, which has been in the works since 2010, "uses science and best practices to correct shortcomings of the previous rule,” Wheeler said Tuesday. The idea is to more reliably identify elevated lead levels across 68,000 public water systems, force utilities to tackle problems faster and ensure Americans know when problems threaten their tap water.

For the first time under the new rule, utilities will be required to test for lead in child-care facilities and elementary schools every five years and must provide testing at secondary schools upon request.

The EPA also said it will require water systems to create an inventory of lead service lines and to make those findings public. When a utility finds elevated lead levels, it now will have to notify homeowners within three days. Utilities will also have to develop assistance programs for low-income residents to remove lead pipes within their homes.

In an effort to close loopholes that critics say have long allowed communities to avoid reporting troubling test results, the EPA also plans to strengthen existing testing protocols. The agency no longer will allow practices such as removing aerators from faucets before testing, giving residents small-necked bottles and instructions to fill them slowly or “pre-flushing” water from lines before taking samples. Each of those tactics can temporarily lower lead levels and mask violations.

Utilities will also be required to allow four liters of water to flow from a faucet before testing, to ensure that the level of contamination reflects what is coming from service lines, rather than pipes inside a house.

If tests expose contamination levels above the new “trigger level” of 10 parts per billion of lead in the water, utilities will be forced to reevaluate the chemicals they use to treat the water and must work with state officials on a plan to replace outdated pipes. (Smaller systems serving fewer than 10,000 people will have more flexibility in how to respond to elevated lead levels.)

“The new trigger level gives an early warning to utilities that their systems are corrosive,” said Jennifer McClain, director of the EPA’s office of ground water and drinking water.

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In addition, water utilities would be required to replace their portion of a lead service line anytime a resident decides to replace the lead pipe leading to his or her home. In communities that exceed the 15-parts-per-billion federal action level, officials will be required to replace a minimum of 3 percent of known or suspected lead service lines annually.

That’s a more lenient standard than the current minimum requirement of 7 percent — and one unlikely to sit well with some public health advocates.

That rule was “littered with loopholes and off ramps,” Wheeler said Tuesday. Among them: utilities were allowed to replace just part of lead service lines, which can cause spikes in lead contamination. He argued that the new rule’s 3 percent criteria will do more to reduce lead service lines than the old, faulty one.

But the new rule will still allow millions of lead service lines to remain in use. It does not require utilities to replace pipes unless they detect lead concentrations above the action level in 10 percent or more of taps tested.

“It’s just a missed opportunity,” said Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Michigan State University professor and pediatrician. “That’s what breaks my heart most.”

In 2015, Hanna-Attisha went public with research detailing the dangerously high lead levels in the children of Flint, Mich. — exposing an ongoing water crisis in the mostly low-income, majority-Black city after residents had been voicing concerns for years.

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Though the federal government will continue to permit lead pipes where lead levels are below 15 parts per billion, the American Academy of Pediatrics has documented lasting decreases in cognition in children exposed to concentrations of just 5 parts per billion. Even the EPA has set its goal maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water at zero.

Olson pointed out that low levels of contamination coming from taps today don’t necessarily mean the water won’t be dangerous tomorrow. Nearby construction, water main repairs and other disturbances can shake loose lead particles that have been sitting in pipes for years. Flint’s water crisis was brought on when the city switched to a water source that wasn’t treated to prevent corrosion.

By allowing much of the nation’s lead infrastructure to remain in the ground, Hanna-Attisha said, the new rule is “by and large a recipe for more Flints to come.”

Others argued that the updated rule was a good start at tackling a widespread, decades-old problem.

“This announcement is about progress, not perfection,” Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley (D) said at the EPA news conference Tuesday.

The American Water Works Association, which represents more than 4,300 U.S. water utilities, also expressed support for the new rule, calling it “a significant step forward for public health protection” when it was proposed in February.

In a statement Tuesday, AWWA President Melissa Elliott said her association was committed to removing all lead service lines from water systems, though she did not provide a timeline for doing so.

The EPA said it plans to publish the final text of the rule in the coming weeks. It will come into effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, and will start to be enforced about three years after that.

Betsy Southerland, a former director of science and technology for the EPA’s Office of Water, said President-elect Joe Biden’s EPA administrator could still edit the rule if it is not published before he takes office. Otherwise, it would take about two years to propose and implement a rule with a lower action level and higher rate of replacement.

Biden has said addressing environmental injustice will be a top priority for his administration, making health advocates optimistic that he will direct stimulus funds to tackle the issue.

“I’m hopeful," Hanna-Attisha said, “that in this national moment of crisis, we also see an opportunity to do these things that we have failed to do to protect public health.”

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