The EPA’s long-awaited proposal to overhaul how it regulates lead in drinking water won’t force water utilities to replace all of their lead pipes—a disappointment for environmental and other activist groups who have been waiting for decades for this overhaul.
The proposal would ratchet up current rules on lead pipe replacement rather than require a full ban on the use of these pipes.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler unveiled the new water regulations at an Oct. 10 event in Green Bay, Wis. This is the first time new nationwide lead regulations are being introduced in nearly 30 years.
“Administration after administration failed to get this done,” he said. “The Trump administration made a commitment early on that we would get this done.”
However, environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the proposal doesn’t go far enough. Erik D. Olson, the group’s senior director for health and food, called it a “huge lost opportunity and a huge disappointment.”
No Pipe Mandate
The EPA’s proposal (RIN: 2040-AF15) wouldn’t force water utilities to rip out all of their lead pipes at once, but it would increase regulatory pressure on them in more subtle ways.
For example, it would require all utilities to conduct an inventory of their lead pipes and then make this information public. It would also force utilities to replace a lead water main when one of their customers decides to replace the lead service line that runs from the main to the customer’s house.
However, the proposal largely keeps in place the current regulatory regime that allows utilities to keep their lead pipes in place as long as the pipes don’t leach too much lead into the tap water they deliver.
In fact, the proposal would actually relax the rules in this area. The current regulations require utilities that have elevated lead levels in their water to replace 7% of their pipes per year. Under this new proposal, that number would drop to 3%.
However, Wheeler said the proposal would actually accelerate lead pipe replacement nationwide because it would remove the loopholes in the current regulations that allow utilities with lead problems to replace far less than 3% of their pipes annually.
Many were still processing the lengthy proposal but—as with Olson of the NRDC—many on the left found it an incomplete solution to an urgent problem.
Groups such as Food & Water Watch, Environmental Advocates of New York, Clean Wisconsin, and others issued statements criticizing the plan.
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) called it “a step backwards” that “allows lead lines to remain in communities.” Kildee’s district includes the city of Flint, where a lead contamination crisis brought the issue of drinking water quality to international attention.
However, another Congressman from the same state, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), praised the Trump administration’s “proactive and holistic approach” in a joint statement with Reps. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.). All three serve on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which oversees the EPA’s regulation of drinking water.
The proposal won’t be open for a court challenge until after it is finalized. But Olson said his group believes that, as currently construed, it may violate provisions in federal drinking water law that prohibit the EPA from relaxing a drinking water regulation after it’s already been established.
In the Works Nearly a Decade
The proposal has been in the works at the EPA for nearly a decade, long before the water crisis in Flint.
Corroding pipes are the primary source of lead in drinking water. Lead is a toxic metal that can cause irreversible neurological damage in children and fetuses.
The agency has struggled to find a way to require utilities to remove the millions of lead pipes still in use across the country without imposing a massive unfunded mandate on the cities and towns that often own these utilities.
The EPA will now solicit comments from the public on this regulatory proposal. It must then compile, analyze, and respond to these comments before finalizing the proposal and giving it the force of law.
The agency expects to finalize this proposal by July.
Wheeler said earlier this month that EPA staff presented him with an updated version of the rule shortly after he was appointed as administrator last year, but he sent this proposal back.
He said he was concerned their proposal wouldn’t ensure the most corrosive lead pipes across the country were prioritized for removal first.
—With assistance from Stephen Joyce.
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