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Water rights and public health groups said Thursday that the EPA's overhaul of the nation's lead rules would not do enough to protect people from lead toxicity. (Photo: wonderisland/Shutterstock)

By Allowing 6 Million Lead Service Lines to Stay In Ground, EPA's Lead Rule Update Will Do Little to Protect Drinking Water, Critics Say

The EPA must remove service lines "before another generation of children grows up drinking lead from their kitchen tap water," said the NRDC

Julia Conley

Public health groups that have waited decades for the federal government to overhaul its lead-in-water rules were outraged Thursday over EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler's "wrongheaded" plan to update the regulations .

The overhaul, which Wheeler detailed at a press conference in Green Bay, Wisconsin, does not include the removal of at least six million lead service lines that have been underground for decades.

That provision's absence from the plan effectively negates the changes that the Trump administration does plan to make, water safety experts said.

"Everything else is small potatoes," Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) told the Washington Post. "From a public health standpoint, that's absolutely critical. There are going to be problems with lead contamination as long as you leave lead pipes in the ground."

Under the new rules, the EPA will require an inventory of all lead service lines and demand that utilities notify homeowners of elevated lead levels within 24 hours of testing for them. The administration will also do away with testing loopholes that can temporarily lower how lead levels show up in tests.

"Safe drinking water is a basic human right; by weakening the rule, Wheeler's EPA is giving reprieve to one of the worst toxic scourges known to science."
—Erik Olson, NRDC

The "trigger level" for lead, used to determine when utilities must work to lower lead levels and build new pipes, will be lowered from 15 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion.

But critics said none of those provisions will make a sufficient difference for public safety as long as lead service lines remain underground across the country.

"Before another generation of children grows up drinking lead from their kitchen tap water, the EPA should develop a plan that completely pulls every lead line out of the ground at the six million homes across the nation that still have them as soon as possible," NRDC's Olson said in a statement. "Safe drinking water is a basic human right; by weakening the rule, Wheeler's EPA is giving reprieve to one of the worst toxic scourges known to science."

The proposed rule does not set one enforceable standard for lead as it does with other toxic substances. It would also weaken regulations for communities where lead exceeds the legal threshold. When water is found to be contaminated, utilities would have to replace only three percent of service lines per year—down from seven percent.

"EPA's proposed approach to lead service line replacement is wrongheaded. A water utility does not need 33 years to replace its lead service lines," Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney with NRDC, said in a statement.

"The rule suggests the EPA has learned little from the disaster in Flint," she added, referring to Flint, Michigan's lead-contamination water crisis that began in 2014.

According to official estimates, at least 90 people died of the effects of lead in drinking water in Flint after the city began using the Flint River as its water source to save money.

Over the summer, Newark, New Jersey was found to have elevated levels of lead in its water. Lead exposure can cause cognitive damage in children, anemia, kidney damage, and at very high levels, death.

"We owe it to our children to demand the most protective law possible so no family, whether rural or urban, or white, black or brown, has to worry about a glass of water becoming a weapon that harms our most vulnerable population's future," said Yvette Jordan, a teacher in Newark.

Mary Grant, Public Water for All campaign director for Food and Water Watch, called on Congress to pass legislation introduced earlier this year that would invest $35 billion into overhauling the nation's water infrastructure. 

"Since the EPA is refusing to do its job, Congress must step up and pass the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act, a bill that would provide billions of dollars in funding to address lead contamination of our drinking water," Grant said. "Our communities deserve lead-free water at school and at home."

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