The EPA kicked off a detailed scientific review Thursday of the ways in which lead exposure through drinking water can disproportionately affect disadvantaged populations, a key step toward its plan to propose a more stringent lead and copper drinking water rule next year.
The Environmental Protection Agency remains on target to publish its proposal in 2023 and issue final regulations by mid-October 2024, according to Michael Goldberg, an environmental engineer in the agency’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.
The EPA is asking its independent Science Advisory Board to help it ensure that the revised regulations—which would update and likely strengthen Trump administration requirements—are based on the highest quality data, including metrics establishing health risks for disadvantaged populations.
President Joe Biden directed the EPA to review the Trump-era regulations but the agency in December 2021 opted to allow them to go into effect. The EPA also launched a multi-year reworking of the rule to pursue what it called “significant opportunities” to strengthen it, including provisions to promote faster replacement of lead service lines.
The EPA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others have concluded there is no known safe level of lead exposure for children. Lead is an issue in low-income and other disadvantaged populations struggling with deteriorating drinking water service lines.
The bipartisan infrastructure package (Public Law 117-58) provided $15 billion for US lead service line replacements, but the total cost of a national overhaul of such lines is likely several times that number—as much as $45 billion, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Science Advisory Board is being asked for feedback on issues including what indicators or metrics the EPA should use in developing case studies that examine how replacing lead service lines can reduce lead exposure. Those metrics could include environmental justice screening tools, such as a Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool under development by the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Among other questions the agency wants the board to consider is whether any of those environmental justice indicators or screening tools could help the agency better assess the impacts of lead exposures via other “pathways” such as through lead paint and lead-contaminated dust.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan in 2021 directed agency offices to integrate environmental justice considerations in a wide range of actions, from enforcement to regulatory development.
The EPA is in in the initial stages of conducting a detailed review of environmental justice concerns it should address as it revises the lead and copper rule, including how it can drive the replacement of service lines in a way that gives more weight to the needs of historically disadvantaged communities, according to Goldberg.