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New EPA Lead Standards to Give Utilities Wide Latitude (1)

July 31, 2019, 5:09 PMUpdated: July 31, 2019, 7:36 PM

A forthcoming EPA overhaul of standards for lead in drinking water will essentially ban partial lead pipe replacement, in which part of a lead pipe is removed but another part is allowed to remain, Bloomberg Environment has learned.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed overhaul for lead in drinking water is the first in nearly 30 years.

The action on partial lead pipe replacement means utilities may need to get permission from homeowners to replace lead service lines on private property before replacing any of their publicly owned piping that connects to home lines, multiple sources both briefed by the agency and within the agency itself confirmed to Bloomberg Environment.

The sources also confirmed that the EPA won’t necessarily require utilities to rip all of their lead pipes out of the ground, but instead will take a “technology agnostic” approach to ensuring lead pipes don’t contaminate water.

The new EPA rules also will require utilities to conduct surveys locating all of the lead piping still in use.

A Loophole?

Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, executive director of the Children’s Environmental Health Network, praised the agency for affirming that partial pipe replacement is unacceptable. She said this practice does nothing to prevent lead corrosion, and may exacerbate it in some instances.

“That’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Witherspoon, who served on an EPA lead advisory committee, told Bloomberg Environment.

But she was less enthusiastic about the agency’s approach toward removing lead pipes, calling it “a loophole that I would not support.”

Witherspoon said she saw this as EPA’s attempt to lighten the load on water utilities of what could be an hugely expensive new regulation.

However, Mike Keegan, an analyst with the National Rural Water Association, said he saw both of these measures as positive and reflect the current administration’s respect for federalism.

“That respect can provide the most effective environmental policy,” Keegan said. “Local conditions and priorities need to be recognized to limit unintended consequences of overly prescriptive federal mandates.”

Eight Years in the Making

The EPA’s new lead rule (RIN:2040-AF15) has been submitted to White House regulatory reviewers for final approval but is not yet public.

It has been in the works at the agency for nearly eight years, long before the water crisis in Flint, Mich., brought the issue of lead contamination to national prominence.

EPA spokesman Michael Abboud said the agency “doesn’t comment on items under interagency review.”

The federal standards for lead in drinking water haven’t been significantly changed since 1991. The standards have long been criticized for allowing utilities to keep lead pipes in place rather than requiring them to be replaced.

(Updated with more reporting throughout.)

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Steven Gibb at