EPA Proposes Major Overhaul to Lead and Copper Rule

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[Editor's note: This story was updated to include a statement from the American Water Works Association.]

At a recent event in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler proposed the first major overhaul of the Lead and Copper Rule since 1991.

“By improving protocols for identifying lead, expanding sampling and strengthening treatment requirements, our proposal would ensure that more water systems proactively take actions to prevent lead exposure, especially in schools, child care facilities, and the most at-risk communities," says Wheeler. "We are also working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to encourage states and cities to make full use of the many funding and financing options provided by the federal government.”

In conjunction with the announcement, the EPA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have launched a new website that summarizes available federal programs that help finance or fund lead service line replacement. The new resource also includes case studies demonstrating how cities and states have successfully leveraged federal resources to support lead service line replacement projects. 

“During my time as a physician, I saw firsthand the devastating impacts lead exposure can have on children,” says HUD Secretary Ben Carson. “I applaud the EPA for taking action to reduce lead exposure in drinking water, particularly in our most vulnerable communities.”

The agency’s proposal takes a proactive and holistic approach to improving the current rule — from testing to treatment to telling the public about the levels and risks of lead in drinking water. When finalized, this proposal aims to require more water systems to act sooner to reduce lead levels and protect public health; improve transparency and communication; and better protect children and the most at-risk communities.

The proposal focuses on six key areas. Under the proposal, a community water system would be required to take new actions, including, but not limited to the following six actions:

1. Identifying the most impacted areas by requiring water systems to prepare and update a publicly-available inventory of lead service lines and requiring water systems to “find-and-fix” sources of lead when a sample in a home exceeds 15 ppb.

2. Strengthening drinking water treatment by requiring corrosion control treatment based on tap sampling results and establishing a new trigger level of 10 ppb (e.g. trigger level outlined below).

3. Replacing lead service lines by requiring water systems to replace the water system-owned portion of a lead service line when a customer chooses to replace their portion of the line. Additionally, depending on their level above the trigger level, systems would be required take lead service line replacement actions, as described below.

4. Increasing drinking water sampling reliability by requiring water systems to follow new, improved sampling procedures and adjust sampling sites to better target locations with higher lead levels.

5. Improving risk communication to customers by requiring water systems to notify customers within 24 hours if a sample collected in their home is above 15 ppb. Water systems will also be required to conduct regular outreach to the homeowners with lead service lines.

6. Better protecting children in schools and child care facilities by requiring water systems to take drinking water samples from the schools and child care facilities served by the system.

EPA’s proposal does not change the existing action level of 15 ppb. EPA is proposing for the first time a new lead trigger level of 10 ppb, which would compel water systems to identify actions that would reduce lead levels in drinking water. EPA’s new 10 ppb trigger level will enable systems to react more quickly should they exceed the 15 ppb action level in the future. These actions could include reevaluating current treatment or conducting a corrosion control study. Systems above 10 ppb but below 15 ppb would be required to set an annual goal for conducting replacements and conduct outreach to encourage resident participation in replacement programs. Water systems above 15 ppb would be required to annually replace a minimum of 3% of the number of known or potential lead service lines in the inventory at the time the action level exceedance occurs.

Additionally, small systems that exceed the trigger and action levels will have flexibility with respect to treatment and lead service line replacement actions. This will allow smaller systems to protect public health by taking the action that makes sense for their community.

The proposal's reception

Some recent reports have criticized the proposal for not going far enough and for increasing the time allowed for water systems to replace lead pipes. Meanwhile, the proposal was applauded by the American Water Works Association in a public statement.

“The Long-Term Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) released today represents an important step forward in addressing lead risks. While it’s too soon to offer a detailed analysis of the rule, a few important points stand out,” reads the statement, highlighting that the proposed rule would require all water systems to develop and update lead service line inventories, and would require the development of plans to remove all lead service lines.

“Identifying and removing lead services lines — many of which are located on private property — can only be achieved through cooperation among water utilities, property owners, public health officials, government at all levels, philanthropy, consumers and others,” reads the statement. “It is a complicated challenge, but also solvable.”

The AWWA goes on to echo a point made by EPA in its 2016 white paper on the LCR revisions — that the median blood lead levels for young children have decreased ten-fold since the mid-1970s, and the number of large water systems out of compliance with the LCR has dropped by 90% since the rule’s initial implementation.

The EPA is taking public comment on this proposal for 60 days after publication in the Federal Register via  http://www.regulations.gov [Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2017-0300].


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