EPA is proposing the biggest changes to lead pipe rules in more than three decades

(Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

EPA is proposing the biggest changes to lead pipe rules in more than three decades


November 30, 2023

Most U.S. cities would have to replace lead water pipes within a decade under strict new rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, as the Biden administration works to reduce lead in drinking water and prevent public health crises like those in Flint, Michigan and Washington. , DC

Millions of people consume drinking water from lead pipes, and the agency said stricter standards would improve IQ scores in children and reduce high blood pressure and heart disease in adults. It would be the largest overhaul of the guiding rules in more than three decades and cost billions of dollars. To achieve this would require overcoming enormous practical and financial obstacles.

These improvements will ensure that in the not-too-distant future there will never be another city or another child poisoned by its pipes, says Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and clean water advocate.

The Biden administration has previously said it wanted about 9 million lead pipes removed nationwide, and quickly. Lead pipes connect street water pipes to homes and are typically the largest source of lead in drinking water. They are most common in older, industrial parts of the country.

Lead crises have hit poorer, predominantly black cities like Flint especially hard, pushing the risks of lead in drinking water into the national consciousness. Their impact extends beyond public health. After the crises, tap water use declined nationally, especially among black people and Latinos. The Biden administration says investments are critical to solving these injustices and ensuring everyone has safe, lead-free drinking water.

We are trying to right a long-standing injustice in this area,” said Radhika Fox, chief of the EPA Office of Water. We bend the arc toward equality and justice regarding the legacy of this issue.

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The new proposal, for the first time, would require utilities to replace lead pipes, even if their lead levels are not too high. Most cities have not been forced to replace their lead pipes, and many don’t even know where they are located. Some cities with many lead pipes could see longer deadlines, the agency said.

The push to reduce lead in tap water is part of a broader federal effort to combat lead exposure, including stricter proposed limits on dust from lead-based paint in older homes and child care facilities and the goal of eliminating lead in jet fuel.

The EPA introduced the first comprehensive regulations on lead in drinking water in 1991. These have helped significantly in reducing lead levels, but experts have said they leave loopholes and lax enforcement allows cities to ignore the problem.

We now know that the fact that literally tens of millions of people are exposed to low levels of lead from things like their drinking water has a major impact on the population, and current lead regulations are not addressing this, says Erik Olson, an expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which challenged the original regulations in the early 1990s. We hope this new rule will have a big impact.

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In addition, the EPA has announced its intention to reduce the level of lead at which utilities are required to take action. And federal officials are urging cities to better inform the public when elevated lead levels are found.

Another change concerns the way lead is measured. Utilities would have to collect more samples, and this alone could have significant consequences: When Michigan did something similar, the number of communities flagged for high lead levels skyrocketed.

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal, and the EPA expects to release a final version of the rule changes in fall 2024. There is then a waiting period before it comes into effect.

Unlike other pollutants, lead seeps into drinking water that has already left the treatment plant. The main remedy is to add chemicals to keep it from leaking from pipes and plumbing fixtures, but that is difficult. A home with dangerous lead levels may be next to a home with no lead exposure at all.

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It will ultimately be up to the utilities to decide whether to pay the full cost of replacing lead pipes, which is too expensive for many people to afford.

“We strongly encourage water utilities to pay for it,” Fox said.

The Assn. of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which represents major public water utilities, said it could be difficult to get permission from homeowners to do the work and absorb rising costs.

Former President Trump’s administration tackled lead in water, issuing new standards just before the end of his term, after years of efforts by advocates. These rules forced utilities to take stronger action when lead levels became too high and required them to test daycares and schools. They also allowed communities to locate their lead pipes. The first inventories will take place in October 2024.

But environmental groups criticized the rule as not going far enough. In response, the Biden administration said it would make the improvements officials announced Thursday.

The Infrastructure Act of 2021 provided $15 billion to find and replace lead pipes. More will be needed. Additional federal funds are available to improve water infrastructure, and the EPA is providing additional assistance to smaller communities. However, some states have been slower to address the problem; a handful have turned down the first round of federal funds.

A few communities quickly replaced pipes. After crises in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and Newark, NJ, officials paid for and efficiently replaced lead pipes, passing new rules requiring homeowners to allow construction crews onto their property to do the work.

Replacing the nation’s lead pipes will be expensive, but the EPA says the health benefits far outweigh the costs.

According to Fox, these benefits are truly invaluable.


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