EPA Takes First Step Toward Undoing Trump’s Illegal and Woefully Weak Lead and Copper Rule

The agency is pausing on the previous administration’s changes to the rule in order to consult with communities who are most impacted.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today that it will delay putting into effect Trump-era changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) in order to receive more public input, particularly from communities most at-risk of toxic lead exposure in their drinking water. 

Spurred by a January executive order, the move presents an opportunity for Biden’s EPA to reverse the Trump administration’s harmful moves and instead more thoroughly overhaul the notoriously inadequate and outdated rule, which has failed to prevent widespread exposure to lead, a potent neurotoxin most harmful to children. 

“It’s promising that the EPA is finally committing to take a hard look at fixing the badly broken Lead and Copper Rule,” says Erik Olson, senior strategic director of Health for NRDC, one of a number of advocacy groups that sued the EPA, asking the courts to strike down Trump’s new LCR. “The Biden administration has the opportunity to make history by ending the crisis of lead-contaminated water, which is a public health disaster more than a century in the making.” 

Experts recommend replacing lead’s unsafe “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb)—which isn’t even directly enforceable—with a strict maximum lead-contaminant level of 5 ppb. According to NRDC analysis of EPA data, at least 5.5 million people in the United States were served by water systems that exceeded the agency’s weak lead action level between January 2015 and March 2018. 

Experts have also urged for the estimated six million to ten million lead service lines still in use across the country to be fully replaced within the next decade. “You can't fix the problem of lead in drinking water until you pull all the lead pipes out of the ground,” says Olson. The Trump administration’s changes to the LCR allowed the lines to stay in the ground, even in the most contaminated communities, for more than 30 years.

A lead service line being replaced at a home in Flint, Michigan, on April 23, 2018

Brittany Greeson for NRDC

There is no safe level of lead exposure: Even low levels pose significant health risks, particularly to children and fetuses, including damage to the brain and nervous systems, learning disabilities, and impaired hearing. 

As the report Watered Down Justice shows, those who are most impacted by drinking water violations are Black and Latino communities and low-income neighborhoods. Drinking water crises in cities like Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey—both majority-Black cities—are examples of this disparate impact. 

“The EPA has a chance to take substantive action against the scourge of lead poisoning in this country,” Olson says. “Undoing the mistakes of the Trump administration is the first step toward writing a science-based law that truly protects our health.” 

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