Amid National Drinking Water Crises, EPA Moves to Weaken Lead Protections

The agency’s proposed revisions of the Lead and Copper Rule fall far short of the overhaul that is needed to protect millions from lead-contaminated water.

Community members line up for water filters and lead testing kits in Newark, New Jersey, after high levels of lead were found in the local drinking water.

Demetrius Freeman for NRDC

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning on releasing its proposed changes to the Lead and Copper Rule, the notoriously complex and outdated law meant to protect people from harmful lead contamination in drinking water. 

But instead of strengthening the law, as public health experts recommend, the Trump administration’s rollback extends the timeline for replacing the country’s six million lead service lines by two decades and keeps the federal action limit for lead at 15 parts per billion (ppb); by comparison, Canada’s action level for lead is 5 ppb.

“That’s the opposite of what is urgently needed—and it’s against the law,” says Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at NRDC, referring to the Safe Drinking Water Act, which prohibits the EPA from weakening any drinking water standards that are already in place. “And it’s widely known that lead is harmful at any level of exposure,” he adds. Even low levels of lead can cause harm to developing brains and nervous systems, fertility issues, cardiovascular and kidney problems, and elevated blood pressure. Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable.

Issued in 1991—and not updated since—the Lead and Copper Rule has repeatedly failed to keep drinking water free of lead contamination, leading to high-profile public health crises in cities like Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey. But unsafe levels have been reported in dozens of other cities, like Pittsburgh, Portland, and Atlanta, impacting millions of Americans

“Before another generation of children grows up drinking lead from their kitchen tap water, the EPA should develop a plan that completely pulls every lead line out of the ground at the six million homes across the nation that still have them—as soon as possible,” Olson says. 

Contractors work to replace a lead service line at a home on Barrie Avenue in Flint, Michigan.

Brittany Greeson for NRDC

“A water utility does not need 33 years to replace its lead service lines,” says Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney and managing litigator for NRDC. “NRDC’s work in Flint, together with its local partners, shows that. A 2017 legal settlement required the city and state to remove Flint’s lead and galvanized steel service lines within three years. We are now coming to the end of that three-year period. By using predictive modeling to find its lead lines, providing replacements at no cost, and undertaking rigorous outreach to residents, Flint is on track to complete its service line replacement work by early 2020.” 

Most recently, NRDC filed a joint lawsuit with the Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus to force city and state officials to address lead levels in Newark that were, in some cases, dozens of times higher than the federal action level. 

“Safe drinking water is a basic human right,” Olson says. “By weakening the rule, Wheeler’s EPA is giving reprieve to one of the worst toxic scourges known to science.”

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