EPA’s Chance Is NOW to Finally Fix the Broken Lead & Copper Rule
Americans across political lines support action to fix lead in drinking water—and here’s how it can be done.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will soon decide what to propose in a revised Lead and Copper Rule to address the serious shortcomings in this ineffective regulation. EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Vice President Kamala Harris, and President Joe Biden have a lot riding on this important overhaul. Swift action is urgent; the health of another generation of children being exposed to lead is on the line, and the Biden administration has an unparalleled opportunity to fix this problem now, once and for all.
There is overwhelming public support for addressing this crisis. Recent polling shows that 9 out of 10 Americans—across Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—support requiring water utilities to completely remove lead pipes within 10 years. Seven in 10 say lead in water is a “crisis” or “major problem.” Only the economy and inflation were considered more pressing issues; fixing lead in drinking water polled above addressing crime.
To remedy this problem, EPA must overhaul the Lead and Copper Rule. The agency ideally should replace this complex, weak “treatment technique” with a simple and directly enforceable maximum contaminant level (MCL) for lead of 5 parts per billion (ppb) at the tap. Canada set a 5 ppb maximum lead level, and the European Union (E.U.) recently recommended that the lead in drinking water target value be dropped from 10 to 5 ppb. However, if the EPA finds that setting an MCL is infeasible, the agency must fix the rule’s problematic treatment technique. At a minimum, the EPA’s revised LCR should equire every lead service line in the nation to be fully removed, at utility expense, within 10 years. No exceptions.
The president reiterated in his recent State of the Union Address the importance of “replacing poisonous lead pipes that go into 10 million homes in America, 400,000 schools and childcare centers so every child in America—every child in [America] can drink the water, instead of having permanent damage to their brain.” To ensure that the president’s promise comes to fruition, the overhauled rule should:
- Require water utilities to complete a full inventory of all service lines to identify all those made from lead or galvanized steel pipe and conduct a validation process to confirm the materials.
- Require utilities to fully remove every lead pipe within a decade, pulling 10 percent of their lead service lines out per year, with attention to ensuring equity in the replacement plan.
- Inventory and remove all lead “connectors” such as so-called pigtails and goosenecks, which are curved lead pipes that connect the straight portion of a pipe to the water main.
- Remove galvanized pipes that have ever been downstream of lead connectors or lead pipes.
- Follow the examples of Newark, New Jersey, the state of Michigan, and forward-looking utilities by replacing lead service lines at the water utilities’ expense. This is critical to avoiding the environmental injustices that result when utilities charge individual homeowners thousands of dollars to remove the lead pipes, which has resulted in lower-income and disproportionately homeowners and renters of color continuing to drink lead.
- Explicitly ban partial lead service line replacements, which can increase lead levels for some time. Any emergency partials should be fully replaced quickly.
- Not allow pipe lining or coating to count toward lead service line replacement.
- Require water utilities and states to adopt measures to ensure full replacement, even if they have trouble obtaining property owner access; for example, tracking the successful ordinance in Newark and the approach in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
- Not base requirements to replace lead service lines on whether they are under public or private land. All lead pipes can contribute lead to tap water, and utilities control the service lines, often explicitly requiring, encouraging, or approving use of lead for them.
- Require that the lead service line replacement program be publicly available and provide consumers with the opportunity for public comment, to ensure that it is equitable.
- Encourage water systems to adopt measures, including revised rate structures, to ensure that low-income consumers can afford their water bills.
Set a reduced action level for lead of 5 ppb and eliminate the trigger level
The Lead and Copper Rule sets an “action level” for lead of 15 ppb, at the 90th percentile, meaning that if 10 percent of samples taken at high-risk homes exceed that concentration, the water utility must take certain steps, such as beginning to remove lead service lines and to optimize its corrosion control treatment. The Trump administration’s Lead and Copper Rule revisions established a “trigger level” of 10 ppb that in theory may trigger additional measures if the level is exceeded. Many commenters, however, noted that the trigger level is confusing and unlikely to be effective. Rather than having a perplexing action level and trigger level with no real clarity about the impact of the latter, we recommend that EPA simply lower the action level to 5 ppb. As noted, this is the level recommended by Canada and the E.U., it’s the standard for lead in bottled water, and it’s feasible and achievable by large community water systems, which is the test for a drinking water standard under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Require point-of-use water filters for those with lead service lines or lead action level exceedances
Water systems should be required to follow the example of cities like Denver that are distributing point-of-use water filters (filters at the tap) and replacement cartridges to every home that has a known or suspected lead service line. The filters should of course be independently certified for lead removal and the utility should be required to educate residents on proper filter installation and maintenance. In addition, systems that exceed EPA’s lead action level should be required to take a series of clearly defined steps in the rule, including distributing point-of-use filters and much more meaningful and effective public educational measures than currently required, including education on how to install, use, and maintain the filters.
Require more robust tap water sampling for lead
The rule must clarify the sampling protocols to fully capture lead levels in tap water, including requiring both first-draw water and fifth-liter water to be tested. The Trump rule revisions only require the fifth liter of water to be checked for lead in homes with lead service lines, which can miss spikes of lead from the first water that comes from the tap. Monitoring in Michigan using both first- and fifth-liter testing shows that both samples should be checked to detect lead problems. The sampling should also be more comprehensive, with more samples taken and more frequent sampling. For example, some utilities are only required to test every three years or even every nine years; some large systems only rarely take samples and check only a tiny fraction of homes that have lead service lines. More robust monitoring is needed because water quality can change with time, treatment changes, seasons, distribution system characteristics, pumping patterns, construction, repairs, location, and other variables.
Require vigorous public outreach and education, including on the use of filters
The current Lead and Copper Rule, Consumer Confidence Report Rule, and Public Notification Rule allow water systems to provide limited and often misleading information to their customers about lead in their water. This has repeatedly been ineffective at ensuring that consumers at risk of lead contamination are made aware of the problem and take action to protect themselves. In case after case, ranging from Flint and Benton Harbor to Newark and Washington, D.C., and many other communities, people with lead service lines or those living in communities with elevated lead levels rarely, if ever, learned of their risks from their water utilities. Often, most people were only made aware of the problem after the news media highlighted the threat. This has often been true, even after long-standing ongoing violations or lead action level exceedences. Prompt, direct, honest, and understandable public notification requirements that can effectively reach diverse audiences are crucial, including using multimedia information platforms. Statements that undercut these direct notifications should be prohibited. Part of this effort should include informing consumers that there is no safe level of lead, that homes with lead service lines qualify for free point-of-use water filters and replacement cartridges, and that they can request education on how to install, use, and maintain those filters.
Fix the lead in school and childcare provisions
The Trump Lead and Copper Rule revisions require water systems to test just five drinking water outlets once in elementary schools. Repeat sampling, if any, can occur after five years in elementary schools, but would only be done upon request from the school. High schools would only be tested upon request. Childcare centers would only have to be tested at two outlets once. There is no mandatory requirement for retesting, nor are parents, students, or teachers required to be informed of the test results. We, and many others, are concerned that even if serious problems are uncovered, those most at risk are not required to be told and may never learn of the problem. This extremely limited testing inevitably will not discover many lead problems since lead levels vary enormously, depending on where and when the samples are taken. Therefore, this inadequate testing could lead to a false sense of security for students, parents, and teachers. When more comprehensive testing is done, it is virtually inevitable that lead will be found in schools, as New York State’s data show. We believe the best approach for schools is to filter first rather than try to test every water outlet in the school multiple times every year to determine if there is episodic lead contamination. To encourage a filter-first approach, the revised rule should require utilities to either do comprehensive, ongoing testing of every drinking water outlet in the schools and childcares, or assist the schools with installing filtration stations. This will create the incentive for utilities to collaborate with their schools to fix the problem with filtration stations rather than merely test and possibly act later.
With these changes to the Lead and Copper Rule, the Biden administration and Administrator Regan can rightly claim to have redressed one of the major remaining sources of lead contamination that has threatened the health and well-being of generations of American children. This is a legacy to which we all can aspire.