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Where Are the Lead Pipes? Finding Them May Prove Tough for EPA

April 19, 2021, 10:00 AM

Incomplete local record-keeping may stymie EPA efforts to locate the nation’s lead pipes to meet President Joe Biden’s goal of replacing them and improving drinking water quality, authorities say.

A better way to reduce lead contamination in the nation’s drinking water, a former Environmental Protection Agency water chief says, is by enforcing an existing rule requiring utilities to replace some of their lead pipes every year.

The Biden administration’s infrastructure plan, released March 31, calls for replacing all lead drinking water pipes throughout the U.S. to avoid lead contamination drinking water similar to the crisis in Flint, Mich. As many as 10 million U.S. homes have lead service lines, the EPA said.

EPA spokesman Nick Conger said municipalities and water utilities “are taking proactive steps to inventory and provide transparent information on the lead service lines in their jurisdictions.” Agency administrator Michael Regan said Thursday he’s confident they can identify the locations of all lead water pipes so they can all eventually be replaced.

But some question if that’s really possible.

“Most cities don’t even know where they are because they don’t keep good records,” said Joe Cotruvo, who headed the EPA’s Office of Drinking Water when the original lead and copper rule was proposed in 1991.

Some water utilities also are unsure where all of their lead pipes are, and it will be a massive undertaking to find them all, said Diane VanDe Hei, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

Proposed Changes

Cotruvo and Regan’s comments came after EPA closed its comment period on the Trump administration’s proposed lead and copper rule update announced last year. After taking office, the Biden administration delayed the effective date of the Trump rule until June.

The proposed Trump rule would require water systems to replace at least 3% of lead service lines annually, down from 7% under the 1991 rule. It also would make utilities themselves responsible for doing their own inventories of lead service lines. If utilities were unsure about what a pipe is made of, it would be classified as lead, VanDe Hei said.

“This will be a significant task that will involve digging into utility records, and in some cases digging into the ground it visually inspect service lines,” VanDe Hei said.

The EPA is holding public listening sessions about the rule on April 29 and May 5, and holding community roundtables about the rule beginning in May.

Better Strategy

A better strategy is to ensure states are enforcing the rule already on the books, Cotruvo said.

“It’s only been there 30 years. Why hasn’t it been enforced all over?” he asked. “The most important thing is to control the corrosivity of the water. That’s the least expensive thing to do. That will control virtually all of the lead exposures.”

Corrosion control will also reduce lead contamination from brass in old taps and galvanized iron pipe in old indoor plumbing.

One way to locate a lead pipe is to find the junction between a home’s service line and its indoor plumbing, Cotruvo said.

“It’s very hard to go into everyone’s house and look,” he said.

Some public water systems don’t have the money to replace lead pipes, and the EPA should consider those financial constraints in an updated lead and copper rule, Tracy Mehan, executive director for government affairs for the American Water Works Association, said in comments submitted to the EPA April 12.

Under Pressure

The Biden administration should move ahead with a new rule regardless of resistance from local water systems, said Erik Olson, senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“We clearly just need to put down our foot and say the time has come to resolve this massive public health risk,” Olson said. “New management at EPA is taking environmental justice issues seriously. Leaded drinking water is a quintessential environmental injustice.”

Eight states and the District of Columbia are pressuring the Biden administration to issue a new rule that updates the 1991 rule and fixes deficiencies in the Trump administration proposal.

A new rule should use the best available science and rectify “the environmental injustice in access to safe drinking water,” the states’ attorneys general said in comments submitted to the EPA April 12.

The states include New York, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

— With assistance from Stephen Lee.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com; Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com

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