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Smaller Share of Lead Pipes Must Be Replaced in EPA Rule (1)

Dec. 22, 2020, 8:34 PMUpdated: Dec. 22, 2020, 9:07 PM

The EPA is cutting the percentage of a water system’s lead pipes that need to be replaced annually under a long-awaited revision to agency’s lead and copper rule announced Tuesday.

The new rule (RIN 2040-AF15) garnered harsh criticism from environmental groups, which said it will expose more children to lead poisoning. It requires water systems to replace at least 3% of lead service lines annually—down from 7% under the old lead and copper rule, finalized in 1991.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said Tuesday the weaker requirements would actually triple the lead pipe replacement rate annually.

“Under the old rule, we only saw 1% replaced,” Wheeler said. “We’ll see three times the replacement rate under the new rule,” which closes “loopholes and off ramps” that existed for decades. Wheeler called the revision “historic,” and the move was praised by some state officials, according to an EPA press release.

But Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the “EPA’s rule condemns millions of Americans to drink lead-contaminated water for a generation.”

Betsy Southerland, former director of EPA’s Office of Water and an outspoken Trump administration critic, said she hopes the incoming Biden administration “will act quickly to recognize the continuing need for increased investment in drinking water infrastructure.”

Trigger Point

The rule would effectively give drinking water utilities a warning bell before they need to start replacing lead pipes that deliver tap water to homes.

That warning would activate when utilities detect lead levels in tap water at 10 parts per billion. At that point, they would have to reassess their strategies for making water less corrosive and begin developing plans to replace lead pipes. When concentrations hit 15 parts per billion, utilities would have to start replacing some pipes.

The new rule is extremely complex and may be more burdensome for water utilities to comply with, said Joseph Cotruvo, former director of the EPA’s Drinking Water Standards Division who was one of the early authors of the original proposal for the 1991 rule.

Cotruvo said he doubts Wheeler’s claim that the new rule will speed up lead pipe replacements.

“Overall, it seems to me on its face it’s difficult to conclude that a 3% replacement rate is faster than a 7% replacement rate,” Cotruvo said Tuesday. “I guess they’re arguing that with all those other requirements, it’ll be more stringent and therefore more effective.”

The EPA’s Science Advisory Board said in May that there was no scientific basis for proposing separate action and trigger levels, and said the public would find it confusing, a view echoed by some states and water utilities.

Adding Pressure

The EPA has been working for at least a decade to overhaul its regulations on lead, a potent toxin that can cause irreversible neurological damage in fetuses and children.

Exposure to lead from water has become a major concern since the crisis in Flint, Mich., when aging pipes leached lead into drinking water after the city switched to a more corrosive water source.

There are between 6.5 million and 10 million lead service lines around the country, and the average replacement cost is about $4,700 per line, according to agency estimates.

The agency’s final rule doesn’t require replacement of lead service lines, but rather adds regulatory pressure in subtle ways to get utilities to take action. For instance, it forces 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.

Wheeler said he is unsure exactly when the new rule would be published in the Federal Register and take effect. He said it could be published before the end of the year or in early January.

The rule also closes several loopholes that allowed communities to meet prescribed lead service line replacement targets without actually removing lead pipes from the ground, said Diane VanDe Hei, chief executive officer of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

“While the regulation theoretically required the replacement of 7% of a community’s lead service lines each year, the actual results often fell short of that goal,” VanDe Hei said.

Strained Budgets

The rule also requires an inventory of the nation’s lead service lines that must then be made public. Water industry insiders said this provision may be the EPA’s way of indirectly requiring the utilities to take action.

The revision is a “step forward” in part because the required inventories will help cities and states replace lines more quickly, said Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators.

But Roberson warned that state governments whose budgets are severely strained due to the Covid-19 pandemic are going to require a lot more resources and staff to comply with the new rule.

“Staff hours will be about twice what the current rule is,” Roberson said Tuesday. “If you don’t have the human infrastructure, then the replacement of the pipes is going to be a problem.”

“We’ve got to make our case to Congress” for more resources to comply with the rule, he said.

(Adds new reporting throughout. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at; Rebecca Baker at