EPA lead rule risks ‘another generation,’ critics say

October 28th, 2020 by Steve

An article by Hannah Northey, E&E News reporter, published: Monday, September 28, 2020 states:

The Trump administration is preparing to more than double the amount of
time the nation’s water utilities have to replace service lines with serious
lead contamination — another rollback being pushed at the tail end of the
first term that would have lasting impacts for billions of children unless

EPA’s final Lead and Copper Rule would give utilities an additional 15
years to replace some of the most contaminated lead service lines,
according to a draft of the final rule obtained by E&E News.
EPA estimates that there are somewhere between 6 million and 10 million
lead service lines throughout the country.

“That means there’s going to be another generation of kids that are going
to be exposed to lead from their drinking water, legally, without any
recourse,” said Erik Olson, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s senior
strategic director for health and food.

The final rule, the first update to federal standards in nearly 30 years,
follows the bulk of a proposal EPA released last fall, which the agency has
touted as a means of accelerating the pace of replacing lead service lines.
Critics have countered by calling it a “lost opportunity” that slows the
process (Greenwire, Oct. 10, 2019).

Specifically, the final rule would drop the rate at which lead service lines
need to be replaced.

Currently, utilities are required to remove 7% of lead pipes per year if lead
concentrations are found to exceed an “action level” of 15 parts per billion
at more than 10% of taps sampled. At that rate, utilities would have about
14 years to replace those lines.

The final rule would lower that rate to just 3% annually, providing about 33
years for utilities to replace lines, according to the draft. Water systems
would then have three years to prepare and submit a plan to EPA for
compliance, according to sources.

The final rule would also institute a 10-ppb “trigger level” at which utilities
would be required to consult state regulators about how to prevent lead
pipes from corroding.

To be sure, the rule also includes language that environmental groups have
recognized as strengthening oversight. The final rule, for example, would
require all water systems to maintain an inventory of lead service lines and
collect tap samples from homes with lead service lines if they’re present in
the distribution system. That information would be made publicly available.

Another provision in the final rule would ensure that entire, and not partial,
lead service lines are replaced. EPA has said the rule will result in lead
pipes being removed sooner because it would close loopholes utilities can
currently use to say they have removed more lead pipes than have actually
been taken out of the ground (Greenwire, Oct. 11, 2019).

Yet the rule directly rebuffs EPA’s own science advisers, who in May called
on the agency to do away with the “trigger” level and lower the “action”
level to 10 ppb (E&E News PM, May 7).

The advisers at the time also questioned EPA’s proposal given the body of
science surrounding the dangers of lead. The Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have said there is
no safe level of lead exposure for children.

EPA spokesperson James Hewitt declined to comment on the contents of
the final rule but emphasized that previous administrations failed to update
the regulation and that career EPA staffers are behind the regulation.

“While it’s premature to draw any conclusions on a rule that is still
undergoing interagency review, the Obama administration refused to
update this rule for eight years,” he said. “The Trump administration is
committed to finally acting to better protect our children’s health and
holistically address lead in America’s water systems. Our career drinking
water experts are a driving force behind our more protective rulemaking.”

An EPA spokesperson in an email said critics’ misleading statements about
the outdated 1991 rule compared with the one currently undergoing
interagency review are creating a “false narrative” of the actions that EPA is
proposing to take.

“EPA’s proposed rule would be the first major overhaul of the Lead and
Copper Rule in almost three decades and includes revisions to a suite of
actions that will reduce lead exposure in drinking water where it is needed
the most,” said the spokesperson. “Suggestions that the outdated 1991 rule
in comparison to EPA’s proposed revisions will result in fewer lead service
line removals are false.”

“The 1991 rule’s replacement rate is rarely occurring due to weaknesses in
the current rule,” the spokesperson continued. “The loopholes and
weaknesses in the current rule is why this Administration has made it a
priority to make revisions — something that previous Administrations did
not accomplish.”

But former EPA officials, academics and environmental groups that have
focused on lead in drinking water say providing utilities more time could
have dire consequences. They have also criticized EPA’s proposed — and
now final — rule as being overly complex without clarifying what constitutes
a violation.

Betsy Southerland, a former staffer in EPA’s Office of Water, said the
agency was clear in the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule that there should be
no lead in drinking water and that lead service lines are the main source of

After the Flint, Mich., water crisis, Southerland said, there was an
expectation that the new rule would accelerate the replacement of lead
pipes and fix the enforcement problems, but instead, the Trump
administration is delaying lead line replacement and increasing the
potential for violations compared with the old rule.

“I can’t believe we waited 30 years for a rule that does nothing to
accelerate the removal of lead from the nation’s drinking water,” she said.
“In the 30 years since that rule has been in effect, only about half of the
lead pipes in the country have been replaced, and over 90% of the lead
violations have gone unreported by the states to EPA.”

The rule marks the first time utilities are required to test for lead at taps in
schools and day care facilities (Greenwire, Oct. 10, 2019).

But the final rule only requires utilities to test for lead in 20% of the schools
and day cares they service every five years, according to the draft. Within
schools that are chosen to be tested, five outlets would need to be tested
and two outlets would need to be tested at day cares.

Olson said such testing requirements aren’t extensive enough because
there’s a tremendous amount of variability in testing. A faucet where no
lead is found one day can later be retested and show high levels of lead,
said Olson, and that’s because particulate lead — small particles of lead
that flake off into the water of service lines — can gradually accumulate
and result in higher readings.

“We’re concerned that by doing such a minimal amount of testing, five taps
per school every five years, that it’s going to mislead parents and staff and
people into thinking there’s not a problem when there very well in many
cases will be a problem,” said Olson. “It’s just not going to pick them up.”

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech engineering professor, said he has argued
for years that lead testing is unreliable. Edwards said his own research that
galvanized the debate included conducting 10 tests in a kindergarten
classroom where a child had been poisoned with lead. Two of the tests
found levels of lead that exceeded hazardous waste thresholds, while eight
tests found nearly undetectable lead, he said.

“Drinking from that tap was completely analogous to a game of Russian
roulette, wherein one out of five times that you consume water, you’re
going to get a big chunk of lead that could cause a spike in your blood lead
and send you to the hospital,” he said. “Four out of the five times, you could
sample it and think the tap was perfectly safe.”

Today, Edwards said many schools and day cares are choosing to spend
money on bottled water and filters until their antiquated plumbing is
replaced, which he said ultimately diverts money for replacing lead service
lines and delays a solution.

“This is a rule that affects everyone: It affects the public’s trust in their water
supply. It has profound implications for where people spend their precious
financial resources,” said Edwards.

Olson said the gap in oversight created by the rule puts the focus on
Congress, including legislation that Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New
Jersey and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas introduced this

That bill, H.R. 798, the “Get the Lead Out Act,” would authorize $14 billion
over two years and require every utility in America to develop a plan to
identify and remove lead pipes that threaten residents, especially children,
from the dangers of lead.

“That’s something EPA should have done, require all the lead service lines
be replaced,” said Olson. “But EPA decided not to do that.”

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