EPA’s New Drinking Water Rule Leaves Millions of Toxic Lead Pipes in the Ground to Contaminate a Generation of Children

WASHINGTON  –  A draft of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) final revision of the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) revealed today indicates the agency will significantly weaken public health protections against lead contaminated drinking water being delivered to millions of homes across the nation.  


The following is a statement by Erik D. Olson, Senior Strategic Director for Health at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council):  


“You can't fix the problem of lead in drinking water until you pull all the lead pipes out of the ground. But EPA Administrator Wheeler will leave millions of lead pipes untouched and allow even the most contaminated communities to take 33 years to remove them. Much more aggressive action is required; abandoning an entire generation of kids to drinking this powerful neurotoxin for decades simply is not good enough."  


The revised LCR will allow most of the 6 to 10 million lead pipes that deliver water to homes across the country to remain in use permanently, Replacing these pipes would be the best way to ensure every person, wherever they live, will get water that is safe from leadIn addition, the agency delayed the deadline for even the nation’s most contaminated water systems to remove lead pipes from about 14 years to the new weakened rule’s deadline of more than 33 years. There is no safe level of lead exposure.  


EPA data confirms that lead-contaminated water occurs in thousands of communities across the country, but there is unequal access to safe drinking water, and particularly to water that is free from excessive lead contamination. A community’s predominant race has the strongest correlation with bad water and inadequate response to violations, according to an analysis of EPA data by NRDC, Environmental Justice Health Alliance, and Coming Clean published in 2019. 




While the EPA tinkered with monitoring and other provisions to make a few modest improvements in the first big update to the LCR in nearly 30 years, key provisions fail to improve public health protection or to reduce the complexity of the rule, including:  


·       Delays Deadline for the Most Contaminated Water Systems to Replace Lead Service Lines from 14 Years to 33 Years.   


This timeline is reckless. Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey will replace their lead pipes within four years, and bipartisan legislation spearheaded by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) (H.R. 7918) would generally require water utilities to replace lead service lines within 10 years.  


·       Fails to Require Replacement of All Lead Service Lines.   


Removing every lead pipe is essential. Even the water industry recognizes that to reduce the threat of lead contamination of drinking water, communities should identify and remove lead water pipes.   


  ·       Changes Lead Monitoring.   


The final rule prohibits tactics for gaming the system that some utilities had used to avoid detection of high levels of lead, though the EPA had already issued guidance in February 2016 effectively banning these tactics.   


·       Leaves Outdated 15 Parts Per Billion of Lead “Action Level” Unchanged.   


Despite evidence that most water systems could meet a stricter action level, the final rule leaves the 15 ppb Action Level in place, while adopting a weak “trigger level” of 10 ppb. The action level and trigger level are both based on the 90thpercentile of lead detected at high-risk homes.    


·       Refuses to Establish an at the tap Maximum   


While there is no safe level of lead, EPA could and legally must set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) that would be as close to the health goal of zero as is feasible. Yet the revised LCR does not set an enforceable MCL. In comparison,  Canada recently set 5 ppb as a maximum, and the EU recently recommended that its maximum lead level in drinking water be dropped from 10 to 5 ppb. While a 26 year-old court decision allowed EPA to avoid setting a lead MCL, we now know much more about lead in tap water than we did then, leading the primary drafter of the 1991 LCR to urge in 2020 that the agency set an MCL for lead to improve protections.  


·       Requires Limited (Likely Misleading) Lead Testing of Schools and Daycares.   


The rule requires utilities to collect an inadequate number of lead samples at schools and childcare centers. They are to test 20 percent of the schools and childcares that they serve each year; only five samples must be checked per school and two samples per childcare. This limited, unrepresentative data set will not detect many of the lead problems and therefore will provide inaccurate information about the risk of lead in drinking water. This is likely to provide a false sense of security to many parents and staff.   


Additional Resources:  


Lead Contaminated Water: EPA’s proposal Fails Our Kids (Feb 2020, blog)  


US EPA’s Proposed Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (Nov 2019, Federal Register)   


NRDC’s Comments to the EPA’s Proposed Revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule (Feb 2019)  


Flint Water Crisis (NRDC)   




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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