To protect kids, EPA wants total removal of lead pipes for the first time
In a sweeping decision that could be expensive but beneficial to public health, the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday proposed requiring water utilities nationwide to replace all of their lead pipes for the first time.
If finalized, the rule would compel local utilities nationwide to dig up and replace lead piping in an ambitious effort to protect children and the public from the potent neurotoxin. It would be a massive undertaking and would not be cheap. The EPA has said it could cost $45 billion.
But the costs of lead exposure are also high. Lead can cause irreversible cognitive damage and other health problems, even at low levels, and particularly in small children. Despite the significant health threat, cities have struggled to get rid of the estimated 9 million lead pipes that remain. And the federal government has never required their total replacement.
"This is a public health concern that has unfortunately spanned generations and an issue that has disproportionately affected low-income communities," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said during a call with reporters Wednesday. "Our proposed improvements are a major advancement."
Under the proposed rule, most water utilities across the country would have 10 years to replace lead service lines, many of which have been in the ground for a century, delivering drinking water to homes, schools and offices. Ten percent of the pipes would have to be replaced each year and the regulation would restrict partial replacements — an approach some utilities have taken in which they remove only the segments of lead pipe they own, even when there are high lead levels in homeowners' tap water.
The agency's announcement builds on President Biden's promise early in his administration to remove every lead pipe in the country by 2031. "We're replacing every single, solitary lead pipe in America. Hear me?" the president said at a campaign event in Maryland last summer.
Environmental and public health advocates praised the Biden administration for updating what many consider an outdated and toothless regulation.
"The EPA's lead rule provides a ray of hope that we are approaching the day when every family can trust that the water from their kitchen tap is safe, regardless of how much money they have or their Zip code," said Erik Olson with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But getting rid of all those pipes — as the EPA has proposed — will now force local, state and federal leaders to figure out how to do it quickly, and at the least cost.
Although the infrastructure law dedicated $15 billion for lead pipe removal, the largest investment ever, there is still a shortfall. While advocates and federal officials estimate the total cost for lead removal at about $45 billion, the drinking water industry's estimate runs as high $60 billion.
EPA's proposed regulation does not fully answer the question of who will pay for these projects.
Regan said Wednesday that water utilities must fully replace lead service lines to qualify for federal funding. But the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which represents some of the largest public water utilities in the country, has cautioned that requiring all lead service lines to be replaced "would represent a massive unfunded mandate." Utilities that don't receive funding from the infrastructure law "would likely have to turn to increased customer water rates," the group wrote in comments to the EPA.
"AMWA urges EPA to focus on providing drinking water systems with the resources and tools necessary to achieve this ambitious goal, and working toward eliminating the real barriers that exist for many utilities," Tom Dobbins, the group's CEO, said in a statement.
Some advocates have doubted whether the administration's push to replace every lead pipe in the nation can succeed without mandatory requirements for water systems to pay the full cost. Some utilities require property owners to pay for part of the removal, which can mean shelling out thousands of dollars.
The upfront costs of removal have been a significant barrier to replacement in poor, predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, where homeowners and landlords have been reluctant or unable to pay. These groups already face a greater risk of exposure, as lead pipes are more common in neighborhoods with older schools and homes.
An American University study of Washington, D.C.'s lead pipe replacement program found that wealthy households were likelier than low-income ones to pay to have their lead pipes fully replaced, increasing existing health disparities.
The proposed update of the lead and copper rule comes at the urging of environmentalists and public health advocates who have said for years that existing regulations of lead in tap water are overly complicated and too weak to protect the health of many Americans.
After the 2014 Flint water crisis, when thousands of young children in the city were exposed to alarming levels of lead, advocates demanded a stronger regulation. The Trump administration updated the rule three years ago, the first time it had been revised since 1991. But changes did not address critics' concerns and they allowed millions of lead service lines to remain in use.
There is no enforceable limit for lead in tap water. The existing rule says that if more than 10 percent of the sites sampled in an area exceed the "action level" of 15 parts per billion, the utility has to take steps to improve its corrosion controls and replace at least 3 percent of its lead service lines annually.
Under Biden, the EPA is proposing to lower the action level to 10 parts per billion. It is also planning to mandate that utilities inventory their pipes and provide water filters to households when there's been repeated exposure. Water testing procedures would change, too, to better catch instances of lead contamination that are going undetected.
The proposed rule has to go through a public comment period and is expected to be finalized next year.
"This is like a pediatrician's dream come true," said Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Michigan State University professor and pediatrician whose research helped expose the Flint water crisis. "I am overjoyed on behalf of kids everywhere — kids in Flint, in Newark, Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and Jackson and places we know of and don't know of."
The rule changes could have a dramatic effect in Chicago, Cleveland and New York, which, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, have the most lead pipes of any cities in the country. Because of the enormous amount of work to be done, these cities may be given more time under the proposed rule, which exempts water systems from the 10-year time requirement if they would have to replace more than 10,000 lead service lines annually.
Chicago especially has struggled to make progress. About 400,000, or roughly three-quarters, of the city's service lines are made of lead. But the city's efforts to remove them are still in their infancy and Illinois law gives it a long runway of 50 years to complete the projects.
Elsewhere, there are signs of progress. Newark has replaced all of its 23,000 lead pipes, as have Green Bay, Wis., and Benton Harbor, Mich.
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