EPA Can Do More to Protect Our Communities from Lead

Corroded pipe with lead service fittings. Credit: Mike Thomas / Creative Commons

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed revisions to the Safe Drinking Water Act’s “Lead and Copper Rule.” The goal of the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) is to reduce lead in drinking water provided by regulated water systems. Increasing public concern has created momentum for tackling lead at the tap. It’s therefore disappointing that EPA chose not to require full replacement of lead service lines — the largest source of lead in drinking water — and stopped short of other measures to reduce exposure.

EPA’s proposal includes improvements in six major aspects of this complex regulation. Some have been under discussion since EPA undertook this process more than a decade ago. Some are informed by newer information about lead health effects and about the occurrence of lead in drinking water across the country. EPA’s proposed revisions to the LCR take place against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s initiatives that put polluter interests over health and the environment and amidst ongoing rollbacks in Clean Water Act programs that reduce pollution and protect drinking water sources.

Get the Lead Out

Lead service lines are the pipes that deliver water from the large water main to the building. Where lead service lines are present, they are the largest source of lead in tap water. Communities nationwide are considering full lead service line replacement. In 2018, Michigan finalized its own version of the Lead and Copper Rule which requires full replacement of lead service lines within 20 years. Instead of following this bold example, EPA stopped short of articulating a vision of water distribution systems free of this largest source of lead at the tap. Using lead service lines — a practice that began over 100 years ago — was a bad choice and it’s time to correct it. EPA should make the right choice now and require all lead service lines to be replaced within a defined number of years.

Prohibit Risky Practices

A “partial replacement” is when water systems replace only the part of the service line under public property.” This has been a common practice during routine maintenance, when emergency repairs are needed, and when water systems are required to begin replacing lead service lines after finding elevated lead levels. Researchers have found that partial replacements result in elevated lead levels over a long period of time. While EPA proposes to remove incentives for partial replacements when water systems are required to begin replacements after finding elevated lead levels, they did not take other steps to reduce this risky practice. EPA should prohibit partial lead service line replacements.

Replace Service Lines Faster

When water systems find elevated lead levels, they are required to replace lead service lines at a rate of 7% annually. EPA proposes to improve several aspects of these replacement programs, but has reduced the annual percentage to 3% EPA should not reduce the percentage of pipes required to be replaced. Instead, EPA should speed up replacement rates.

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