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Key Issues in EPA’s Proposed Lead and Copper Rule Revisions #3 -- Faster Replacement

UPDATE: The public comment period closed on February 12, 2020. Clean Water Action members submitted more than 15,000 letters and emails asking EPA to do more to protect our water and communities from lead.

Issue #3: EPA Should Require Lead Service Lines to be Replaced Faster

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing revisions to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) meant to reduce the presence of lead and copper in tap water served by regulated public water systems. EPA is accepting comments on its proposal until February 13, 2020.  We are calling on EPA to require full replacement of lead service lines at all regulated water systems. If this requirement is not in the final revised LCR, EPA should improve its proposal by retaining at minimum the current 7% annual replacement rate required for systems with elevated lead levels.

Under current regulations, if water systems exceed the Action Level for lead1, they must take a number of actions including commencing lead service line replacement at a rate of 7% annually.  EPA’s proposed LCR revisions reduce this rate to 3% while closing some loopholes and proposing other requirements that will support more efficient and effective replacement programs. While closing loopholes and putting in place other requirements to make replacement activities more effective are positive steps, EPA is  justified in lowering the required rate of replacement. When systems exceed the lead Action Level, 7% is a realistic yet ambitious rate of replacement.

Loopholes in Current Requirements & EPA’s Proposal

Under current regulations, when systems exceed the Lead Action Level and initiate replacement programs they often take advantage of shortcomings in the law that result in lead service lines not being fully replaced. First, it has been common practice to replace only part of the lead service line, usually the portion under public property and generally owned by the water system. These partial replacements are currently counted toward the 7% annual replacement requirement. EPA proposal no longer counts partial replacements toward the replacement rate requirement. This is a positive step, and reflects current thinking around the risk of leaving part of the lead service line intact.

Second, current regulations allow water systems that have exceeded the Lead Action Level to “test out” lead service lines and count them as replaced. “Testing out” means collecting a series of samples at the tap to profile water coming into the house or building from the entire length of the lead service line. If all of the samples are at or below 15 ppb, that lead service line is counted as “replaced.” EPA’s proposal eliminates this practice, which we support.

EPA argues that closing these two “loopholes” will result in more lead service lines being fully replaced than is currently the case. Right now, systems required to replace 7% of lead service lines annually include partial replacements but also lines that have not actually been replaced in their current calculations. We agree with EPA’s conclusion that the proposed changes would result in more lead service lines being fully replaced. However, we disagree with EPA that this justifies lowering the required annual replacement rate to 3%. Because, for any system has experienced an Action Level exceedance, an ambitious replacement rate is justified and necessary.

Other Aspects of EPA’s Proposal Support Retaining or Increasing Replacement Rates

Two other aspects of EPA’s proposed revisions support an annual replacement rate of at least 7% for systems that have had a lead Action Level exceedance. 

  1. EPA proposal would require all systems to conduct inventories of lead service lines and to continually improve and update them. Having reliable inventories of lead service lines already in place will enable systems to commence replacement programs more efficiently.
  2. Upon submission of the first inventories 3 years after the revised LCR goes into effect, water systems are also required to submit a lead service line replacement plan. These comprehensive plans are intended to be followed should the system ever be required to commence replacement. Currently, systems that exceed the lead Action Level often enter into a chaotic and inefficient process. Having comprehensive plans in place means that water systems required to replace lead service lines will be more likely to do so efficiently and thus at a faster rate.

How EPA Can Improve the Current Proposal

When water systems exceed the Lead Action Level, the mandatory annual replacement rate should be at least 7%, not 3% as EPA has proposed. EPA should also retain two important aspects of the proposal: 

  1. No longer allowing partial replacements to count toward replacement goals 
  2. No longer allowing lead service lines to be considered replaced based on a series of tap water samples

Learn more about lead at the tap and call on EPA to strengthen the revised Lead and Copper Rule here.

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1 Regulated water systems exceed the lead Action Level when more than 10% of tap samples at high risk homes and buildings have lead levels higher than 15 ppb.