Biden EPA Commits to Overhauling Rules for Lead in Drinking Water, Concerns Remain on Timeline to Get the Lead Out
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced major funding and a series of steps to strengthen controls for lead in drinking water, prioritizing action in disadvantaged communities, but failed to deliver enforceable requirements that would fulfill President Biden’s commitment to solve the nation’s lead contaminated drinking water crisis.
The president has repeatedly called for replacement of “100 percent” of lead pipes from the ground. However, the EPA’s announcement would allow the Trump-era Lead and Copper Rule to go into effect, including its decades-long timeline for removing lead pipes and fixing the lead problem in school water. The EPA pledges to strengthen the rule in the future.
“The EPA’s promise to take aggressive action to address lead-contaminated water and strengthen its rules are appreciated, but good intentions won’t be enough to get the job done. The top priority must be to require removal of all lead pipes within the decade and to set a strict at-the-tap standard, which is the only way to prevent another generation of kids from drinking water through what is essentially a lead straw,” said Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director of health at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “The EPA simply cannot allow the last administration’s Lead and Copper Rule to go into effect and must overhaul that rule immediately. It’s only because of the leadership of communities fighting to fix the disaster of lead-contaminated water in cities like Flint, Benton Harbor, and Newark that we’ve gotten this far—now is the time to finally fix this crisis.”
President Biden and Congress have been committed to funding the replacement of lead pipes that threaten drinking water and endanger the health of millions of people. NRDC estimates as many as 12 million lead pipes deliver drinking water to homes in every state, potentially tainting tap water with lead, a potent neurotoxin with no safe level of exposure. Communities of color, particularly in Black, Latino, and low-income neighborhoods, are far more likely to have water systems that violate the EPA’s already weak rules meant to reduce lead and other contaminants in drinking water. The woefully inadequate lead in tap water rules, combined with poor or even non-existent enforcement of the lead standard left communities exposed to lead for years, sometimes without notice that the water could be unsafe.
Significantly, the EPA is encouraging replacement of every lead pipe in the nation, and prioritizing action in disadvantaged communities. Other notable proposals include bringing a “whole of government” approach to strengthen enforcement, set more protective standards, and discourage “partial” lead pipe replacements.
However, the EPA is taking a gamble by greenlighting the weak Trump-era Lead and Copper Rule, which NRDC challenged in court, because it condemns children to drinking lead contaminated water indefinitely.
“It’s clear that the Biden administration hopes to overhaul this fundamentally flawed rule and to make urgently-needed fixes. But based on past performance, there is a risk that EPA will not get around to fully and promptly overhauling and strengthening it,” said Olson.
NRDC has advocated for the agency to replace the unsafe “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb), which currently isn’t directly enforceable, with a strict maximum contaminant level for lead of 5 ppb at the tap. NRDC also has called for requiring the full replacement of all lead service lines—the primary culprit of lead contamination—within the next decade. Partial lead service line replacements should be banned, and water utilities should cover the costs of replacing these lead pipes that they generally approved and required or encouraged to be used.
NRDC has been fighting to clean up lead in drinking water for decades, including legally challenging both the Trump-era and 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, and filing litigation seeking cleanup of lead in tap water in Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey.
- Lead Pipes are Widespread and Used in Every State
- Biden EPA Delays Trump-Era Lead and Copper Rule Again (June 2021)
- NRDC Sues EPA for Its Illegal Rule That Will Expose Millions to Toxic Lead in Drinking Water (January 2021)
- An F Grade: EPA’s LCR Doesn’t Protect Kids in School (blog) (January 2021)
- NRDC, Fix EPA’s Weak Lead & Copper Rule (2021)
- Watered Down Justice (2019) by NRDC, Environmental Justice Health Alliance, and Coming Clean
- Newark Drinking Water Crisis (NRDC website)
- Flint Water Crisis (NRDC website)
NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.