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Biden administration details push to finally rid the nation of millions of lead pipes

Long-awaited changes won’t happen overnight, as EPA aims to finalize new regulations by 2024

A cut lead pipe is pulled from a dig site for testing at a home in Royal Oak, Mich., in November 2021. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

The Biden administration on Thursday announced an effort to jump-start the removal of every underground lead water service line in the country, a move meant to stop once and for all the poisonous metal from flowing through the taps of millions of Americans.

Half a dozen years after the water-contamination fiasco in Flint, Mich., shined a national spotlight on the persistent problem, the Environmental Protection Agency is set to write stricter standards for drinking water that would compel water utilities to dig up and replace lead lines from coast to coast.

Up to 10 million lead pipes still carry water to homes and businesses around the nation, the EPA estimates, carrying with them the risk of leaching the dangerous neurotoxin into drinking water. President Biden campaigned on removing all of the nation’s lead service lines as part of his plan to upgrade the nation’s aging infrastructure and alleviate the burden of pollution borne most heavily by poor and minority communities.

“Over the past year, I have visited with and heard from communities in Chicago, Flint, Jackson and many other areas that are impacted by lead in drinking water,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “These conversations have underscored the need to proactively remove lead service lines, especially in low-income communities.”

For three decades, federal requirements on how towns and cities control and test for lead in drinking water have failed to avert the worst lead-contamination crises. Numerous presidential administrations have undertaken efforts to rework the regulations, which have been criticized as complicated, poorly enforced and not stringent enough to protect Americans from a substance that scientists say is not safe at any level.

The EPA’s lead-in-water rule has been faulted for decades. Flint might hasten a change.

Last year, EPA officials under Donald Trump issued a revamped federal lead-in-water rule, which had been in the works for a decade. Officials argued that the updated rules would allow the nation’s 68,000 public water systems to more reliably identify and act on elevated lead levels.

The Trump rewrite included the first-ever requirements for utilities to test in schools and child-care facilities and to notify residents within 24 hours when tests show unsafe lead levels. But environmental advocates said a critical measure was missing: mandating the speedy removal of millions of lead service lines that remain throughout the nation.

“If fully implemented within 10 years, those ideas would change the course of history, by largely eliminating the scourge of lead from drinking water,” said Erik Olson, a senior director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Biden administration said Thursday it will allow the Trump-era rule to take effect, despite a lawsuit from environmentalists who call it “weak and illegal.” But the agency said it is more protective than the antiquated 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, and that it makes sense to keep it in place while regulators work on stronger standards.

But Biden’s team is just getting started, and it remains to be seen how exactly the agency will push water system operators to undertake costly and time-consuming replacements. The rulemaking could prove to be one of the most technically challenging regulations the Biden administration undertakes. The EPA plans to finalize the rule by October 2024, just before the next presidential election. It did not say when it would publish its proposal.

“If they actually try to restart the rule, that’s a huge undertaking,” said Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association, which represents water utilities and professionals.

Thursday’s announcement from the EPA arrived as part of multipronged “action plan” from the White House to funnel more resources from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies to not only dig up lead pipes but also to mitigate lead paint that can chip and be swallowed by children.

The plan is not only a public health measure but also a way of spurring “good union jobs” in plumbing and pipe-fitting, Vice President Harris said in remarks Thursday at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest coalition of labor unions.

The issue of lead in drinking water extends far beyond Flint, where the exposure of thousands of children to tainted water culminated in pending criminal cases against former Michigan governor Rick Snyder (R) and other former officials and a lawsuit to replace more than 10,000 lead lines.

Flint has replaced over 10,000 lead pipes. Earning back trust is proving harder.

Yet many other communities continue to grapple with contaminated water.

On the other side of the state in Benton Harbor, the Rev. Edward Pinkney’s congregation goes door to door three days a week distributing bottled water. For weeks, officials have urged the roughly 10,000 residents of the town nestled along Lake Michigan to avoid the tap for drinking and cooking because of lead — at least until more testing is done.

To Pinkney and many others, tests aren’t enough.

“As long as you have lead pipes, you’re going to have lead in the water,” said Pinkney, a pastor at the God’s Household of Faith church in Benton Harbor.

Even low levels of lead in blood can impair how well children pay attention and perform in school, and the health risks include irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system, as well as hearing and speech issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said there is no safe blood lead level for children.

The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure measure signed by Biden last month commits $15 billion to replacing lead pipes. The White House announced Thursday it will distribute a $2.9 billion chunk of that money to states, territories and tribes next year. Congress is considering a second budget bill that includes another $10 billion for lead pipe remediation, though that spending plan is in peril as Democrats struggle to agree on its scope.

All that money, though, is still not enough money to finish the job. The White House estimates $45 billion is needed to dig up every lead pipe in the country. One industry estimate pegs the cost as high at $60 billion.

Many cities struggle to find the resources even to do a lead-pipe inventory. Wayne Vradenburgh, head of the water department in Newburgh, N.Y., said he is “still waiting on funding” to do a count three years after the city reported unacceptable lead levels.

Biden hopes to dig up the nation’s lead water pipes. This city wants his help.

The American Water Works Association, the water systems trade group, said it supports replacing all lead service lines but asked the EPA to keep the Trump-era rule in place and to give utilities flexibility.

“There’s a balancing act,” Via said. “The right balance will be found locally.”

With its new rulemaking, the EPA plans to consider ways of strengthening the agency’s current “action” level of 15 parts per billion, which when exceeded requires utilities to take steps to control for corrosion and eventually replace pipes.

For the EPA, the biggest outstanding question now is: How quickly will it compel water utilities to remove pipes? The agency said it will take public comment and conduct an economic analysis to help settle on an answer.

Radhika Fox, who runs the EPA’s Office of Water, told reporters Wednesday evening that the agency is looking at various time horizons but that at the end of the day, “We want it as quickly as possible.”

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