EPA Will No Longer Defend Weak Trump Administration Drinking Water Rule in Court, Expected to Strengthen Lead in Tap Water Health Protections

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today informed a federal court the agency will no longer defend the drinking water lead regulation set by the Trump Administration, and instead will propose a new rule by September 2023. NRDC, joined by its partner groups and 10 state Attorneys General, challenged the lead regulations in January 2021, arguing that by leaving millions of people exposed to toxic lead in drinking water, in many cases for another 33 years or more, the EPA’s lead in drinking water rule was inadequate and illegal.  

EPA has now committed to revisiting the problems NRDC and its partners identified with the Trump rule, conducting a new environmental justice analysis for the rule, and, for the first time, considering the feasibility of mandating the replacement of all lead service lines.   

“This is welcome news: EPA’s commendable decision to no longer defend its weak lead in tap water rule is what health experts and affected communities across the country have been urging the agency to do. The health of millions of people, especially our kids, is threatened by lead whenever they turn on their taps. Safe drinking water is a basic human right, so EPA must quickly tackle the lead contamination crisis by setting a much stronger lead rule and ensuring that all lead water pipes are pulled out of the ground in the next decade,” said Erik D. Olson, Senior Strategic Director for Health at NRDC

Residents from communities facing lead-contaminated drinking water crises in Flint, Newark, Chicago, and other cities across the nation urged the Biden administration to protect public health by strengthening the lead in drinking water rule. There is no safe level of lead exposure. As Yvette Jordan, Chairperson of the Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus in Newark, New Jersey said last summer, “No other community in America should ever again have to fight so hard for justice and dignity of drinking water free from lead contamination.” 

The EPA’s decision to initiate a new lead regulation, and to take a close look at requiring the replacement of all lead pipes, is in line with President Biden’s commitment to solving the nation’s lead contaminated drinking water crisis. The President’s approach includes passing historic infrastructure legislation with $15 billion in funding as a down payment towards carrying out his plan to remove 100 percent of lead pipes from the ground in a decade, while prioritizing action in disadvantaged communities.   

A recent poll by NRDC found safe drinking water is a top concern nationwide, with most respondents indicating that lead pipes in drinking water systems are either a crisis or a major problem. The findings confirm ongoing strong bipartisan support for investments in water infrastructure to remove lead pipes. 

NRDC sued the Trump EPA in January 2021 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, asking the court to strike down the updated lead in drinking water rule released that month. Ten state Attorneys General as well as Newburgh Clean Water Project, NAACP, Sierra Club, and United Parents Against Lead, represented by Earthjustice, also filed petitions in the same court challenging the rule.  The petitioners argued that substantial changes were needed to modernize, strengthen, and simplify the Lead and Copper Rule, which had not been substantially updated since 1991. At the top of the list of the Rule’s flaws was that the agency delayed, and in most cases, refused to require the removal of as many as 10 million lead pipes (and possibly more), “condemning another generation of children to drinking lead-tainted water.”

“For decades the outdated LCR failed to protect families from lead in their drinking water. And the Trump administration’s updates to the rule were not enough to protect communities from lead contaminated water, and indeed, took some steps backwards,” said Suzanne Novak, Senior Attorney at Earthjustice. "EPA’s commitment to strengthening the LCR is welcome news. Communities bearing the brunt of lead contamination are owed a new rule that is health protective, requires replacement of all lead service lines, and does not settle for modest tweaks. We look forward to the Biden administration issuing a stronger rule.”      

The Biden Administration put the lead in drinking water rule on hold for most of 2021, but in December of that year the EPA announced it would let it take effect, while at the same time acknowledging it could be improved and announcing its intent to finalize a new rule by October 2024. While the Trump Rule will remain on the books until EPA finalizes that new rule, EPA has now taken a “voluntary remand” of the rule and made a formal commitment to propose a new rule by September 2023, finalize it by no later than October 2024, and take a fresh look at the whole lead rule, including many of the specific shortcomings in the rule identified in the lawsuits.  

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.

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