Driven by Flint water crisis, EPA issues new rule to tackle lead in drinking water

The rule will require water systems to identify and remove lead pipes.

October 10, 2019, 9:29 AM

Partially inspired by the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new rule to reduce exposure to lead from drinking water around the country on Thursday.

"The action that we're taking tomorrow is targeting probably the largest source of lead in people's lives today -- and particularly children -- and that's in the drinking water system," EPA chief Andrew Wheeler told ABC News in an exclusive interview Wednesday.

Wheeler said the new rule will help remove the most corrosive pipes with the highest risk of releasing lead first.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there's no safe level of lead in children's blood and says that amounts as low as 5 parts per billion require medical intervention. Exposure to lead can cause developmental delays and learning difficulties in children, as well as symptoms including weight loss, irritability or even seizures.

Lead exposure has drastically decreased since rules were put in place such as banning lead pipes in 1986, but an estimated 6.5 to 10 million homes still use lead water lines and millions of buildings, including schools, also have older infrastructure that could include lead pipes, according to EPA.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler makes a policy announcement at EPA headquarters Sept. 19, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Win Mcnamee/Getty Images, FILE

Lead pipes that carry water from local treatment facilities to residents' homes and other buildings can be treated to prevent exposure to lead. But in some cases water, like in Flint, improperly treated water can corrode the pipes and lead can leach into drinking water. Experts and groups like the American Waterworks Association have said that given the high risks from lead exposure, cities and states should take steps to completely remove lead pipes to eliminate the risk of exposure completely and that only partially removing lead service lines actually risks releasing more lead.

This is the first overhaul of the Lead and Copper Rule in more than 20 years, according to the EPA, and would require drinking water systems around the country to be more proactive in identifying lead water lines in the city, replacing those service lines and treating water to prevent residents from being exposed.

When he first came into office, Wheeler said he was concerned a requirement to remove lead service lines could take 20 to 30 years and that poorer communities would lag behind affluent communities that might be able to replace their lines immediately.

"What we're doing is requiring water systems to update their publicly available inventory of where the lead service lines are and we're requiring the water systems to find and fix the sources of lead, particularly when a sample in a home exceeds the 15 parts per billion," he said.

The rule also requires that schools and day care facilities be tested after the agency's internal watchdog found that less than half of school districts check drinking water for lead.

The new rule would also require all water systems to use the same procedures to test tap water for lead and notify customers within 24 hours if the level exceeds 15 parts per billion.

"On the campaign trail President Trump said he wants to make sure that there were no more Flint, Michigans, and that has been a guiding principal that he directed us to," Wheeler told ABC News. "One of the reasons why we're requiring notification if lead is found in the water within 24 hours -- he was very disturbed with what happened in Flint. It was a failure of communication by both the local, state and the EPA during the Flint crisis. So this was a huge priority for him -- it's been a huge priority for us at the agency."

Cities still have to replace the portion of a lead service line managed by the water system if a customer decides to replace the portion on their private property, under the new rule. Cities will also have to implement a plan to replace at least 3% of lead service lines every year if the water tests above 15 parts per billion of lead. Systems with more than 10 ppb -- but less than 15 -- will have to work with the state to set an annual goal to replace those service lines.

Under the current rule, systems that tested above 15 ppb were required to replace 7% of lead service lines each year, but an EPA official said they didn't think that was happening because partial replacements or new test results could count as part of that benchmark.

"We encourage all lines to be replaced and we say that there is no safe level for lead, but you have to prioritize the cleanup and we have to make sure that with 15 parts per billion or above that those are cleaned up and immediately replaced and we lowered the trigger to 10 parts per billion. Ultimately our goal is to replace all the lead service lines around the country," Wheeler said.

City of Flint, Michigan workers prepare to replace a lead water service line pipe at the site of the first Flint home with high lead levels to have its lead service line replaced under the Mayor's Fast Start program on March 4, 2016 in Flint, Mi.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images, FILE

Erik Olson, senior director of health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the 3% requirement is still a huge change from 7% and could take much longer for all lead service lines to be replaced.

"We thought they should do full replacement within 10 years. The problem is -- if you wait 33 years -- that at least one generation and maybe two of kids that are going to be exposed to lead," he said.

Olson said he's also concerned that piecemeal replacements of lead service lines are inefficient and that the best approach is to go into an area or neighborhood and replace all the lines at once regardless of if homeowners have taken the same step.

Wheeler acknowledged that the customer-driven approach could mean partial service line replacements in some areas, which EPA itself says can increase short-term lead exposure, but would still be beneficial.

"This is to make sure that when homeowners replace the lead pipes that they have, in the past if they replaced it there's no guarantee they would get lead-free water because the service line going up to their house may have been corroding lead. So this is to make sure that if a homeowner is going to take on the additional financial burden of replacing their line early that they will be guaranteed lead-free drinking water by requiring the water service provider to replace their side of the pipes as well," he said.

But that will be an expensive undertaking.

A 2016 EPA document found it could cost from $2,500 to $8,000 to replace a single line, estimating it would cost between $16 billion to $80 billion to immediately replace all the lead lines in the country. EPA provides billions of dollars in grants to improve drinking water infrastructure every year but cost will still likely be a concern for homeowners with lead service lines or smaller communities.

An EPA official said they expect the new rule to cost water systems and states $131 million to $270 million a year.

Wheeler acknowledged the process won't be cheap but said the agency believes the benefit of reducing lead exposure outweighs the cost.

The new Lead and Copper Rule will be posted to the Federal Register on Thursday and will be open for 60 days of public comment before it moves forward.

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