flint workers

Workers prepare to replace a lead water service line in Flint, Michigan on March 4, 2016.

(Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

10-Year EPA Plan to Swap All US Lead Pipes 'Still Not Enough'

While welcoming the "long-overdue meaningful action" on drinking water safety, one campaigner argued that "much more must be done—much faster—at no cost to impacted households."

The Biden administration's proposal to better protect drinking water nationwide was met with sweeping applause on Thursday, but at least one consumer advocacy group stressed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policy is "still not enough."

With its proposed changes to the Lead and Copper Rule, the administration aims to replace all lead water service lines in the United States within a decade, according to the EPA. There are also provisions intended to locate legacy lead pipes, improve tap sampling, lower the lead action level, and strengthen protections to reduce exposure.

Food & Water Watch Public Water for All director Mary Grant said that "the federal government has already waited far too long to require the elimination of these toxic lead water pipes, which poisoned the water in communities across the country," from Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi to Newark, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

"The Biden administration has proposed long-overdue meaningful action toward the goal of eliminating lead from drinking water, but to ensure that every community has safe, lead-free water, much more must be done—much faster—at no cost to impacted households," she asserted.

Grant praised "agitators who emerged from... water contamination fights" and called on Congress to "step up to provide funding to replace the entire service line at no cost to impacted households, prioritizing low-income and environmental justice communities."

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed by President Joe Biden two years ago, "provided a $15 billion downpayment on this overhaul, but the total cost could exceed $60 billion," she pointed out, urging Congress to pass the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability (WATER) Act.

"In a moment when many of us feel overwhelmed by bad news, the EPA's lead rule provides a ray of hope."

While additional steps are clearly needed, impacted communities and other campaigners still welcomed the progress on Thursday.

"Communities like ours... have grappled with the repercussions of lead contamination for too long," said Deborah Brown, a steering committee member of Newburgh Clean Water Project in New York. "The proposed improvements, especially the replacement of all lead service lines, signify a significant stride to safe and clean drinking water for our families and future generations. It's a step in the right direction."

Earthjustice attorney Suzanne Novak—whose legal group has represented the Newburgh Clean Water Project—said that "the EPA's proposed improvements to the Lead and Copper Rule are a much-needed response to a dire public health crisis that's been ongoing for more than a century."

"The administration's proposal takes important steps towards fulfilling the Safe Drinking Water Act's purpose of protecting human health to the extent feasible," Novak continued. "EPA has recognized that quick removal of all lead service lines is imperative, and that swift action is needed when a community has persistent high levels of lead in its water."

"Because the public health burden of lead exposure falls disproportionately on environmental justice communities," she emphasized, "we need to make sure that the final rule is equitable in how it achieves reduction of lead in drinking water across the country."

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted "apparent weaknesses" of the proposal, including that "water systems are not required to pay for the lead service line replacement," utilities could get extensions beyond the 10-year deadline, and the action level reduction from 15 parts per billion to 10 ppb "is less strict than the 5 ppb standards recommended by health experts and the governments in Canada and Europe."

Still, Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at NRDC, said that "in a moment when many of us feel overwhelmed by bad news, the EPA's lead rule provides a ray of hope that we are approaching the day when every family can trust that the water from their kitchen tap is safe, regardless of how much money they have or their ZIP code."

Environmental Working Group senior vice president for government affairs Scott Faber also praised the progress, saying that "once again, President Biden's EPA is putting our families first and honoring his commitments to the American people."

The campaigner also highlighted the need to better protect communities whose drinking water is contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), chemicals used in various products that persist in the environment and human body and are connected to health problems including cancers.

Biden's EPA proposed the first-ever national drinking water standard for PFAS in March. Faber said Thursday that "we're confident he will also make good on his commitment to finalize a drinking water standard for the toxic 'forever chemicals.'"

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