For Immediate Release
EPA Weakens Lead Drinking Water Protections
** Media telepresser at 12:00 noon ET **
WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today is proposing changes to the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), a complex, outdated national standard for controlling lead levels in drinking water and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is holding a telephone-based press conference at noon ET to comment on EPA’s move.
The following is a statement from Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at NRDC, based on early press reports:
“EPA is rolling back rules meant to protect people from dangerous lead in drinking water. That’s the opposite of what is urgently needed—and it’s against the law.
“Safe drinking water is one of the most basic protections a government provides. And it’s widely known that lead is harmful at any level of exposure. With whole cities—like Flint and Newark—experiencing the fallout of lead contamination, it is disturbing to see President Trump and EPA Administrator Wheeler fail to meaningfully address this serious public health problem.
“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. 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.”
According to press reports, the EPA’s proposed update to the LCR makes no change to the“action level” it uses to act on lead contamination. It reportedly includes rudimentary improvements on the timing of notice to the public, provisions to discourage partial service line replacements, and a few other measures.
“I live in Newark, a community with high lead levels in its drinking water. We’ve had to go to federal court to try to force city and state officials to make our water safe, but it shouldn’t be that way. 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 founding member of NEW Caucus (Newark Education Workers Caucus) and history teacher at Central High School. Jordan and her husband have been homeowners in Newark’s South Ward for over 30 years.
“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. It will have taken Flint only three years to get its toxic lead pipes out of the ground. The rule suggests the EPA has learned little from the disaster in Flint,” said Dimple Chaudhary, senior attorney with NRDC and lead counsel in the Flint drinking water case.
The Wheeler Lead and Copper Rule proposal reportedly includes a massive rollback –stretching out the lead service line replacement requirement by two decades – which undermines the more modest gains found in proposals to discourage partial lead service linereplacements and to require faster provision of public information.
- Weakening lead service line replacement requirement: Rather than expedite removal of lead service lines, the Wheeler proposal reportedly extends the period for replacing lead pipes by 20 years.
The biggest question for this rule has always been whether EPA will require all 6 to 10 million lead service lines across the country to be fully replaced at water utility expense, which has been the recommendation by public health and environmental groups. EPA’s proposal reportedly will not require all lead service lines to be replaced. This despite the fact that the water industry itself reluctantly has admitted all lead service lines need to be pulled out of the ground (see the water utility industry’s trade association the American Water Works Association’s statement) .
The EPA reportedly would weaken the rule in a way that would extend the use of lead lines by two decades. The existing rule says that a water system with lead above EPA’s Action Level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) must replace 7% of its lead service lines each year for as long as they exceed 15 ppb. In other words, currently water utilities get about 13 years to replace their lead service lines.
Wheeler’s proposal reportedly will weaken this substantially, by permitting water systems only have to remove 3% of their lead service lines for as long as they exceed 15 ppb—so they will get over 33 years – 20 years longer than permitted under the current rule -- to replace their lead service lines.
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NRDC believes this proposal is illegal because it violates the anti-backsliding provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act, which prohibits EPA from weakening any drinking water standards that are on the books.
- Changing lead monitoring
The proposal reportedly would prohibit tactics for gaming the system that some utilities had used to minimize detected levels of lead, but EPA had already issued guidelines in February 2016 saying these tactics should not be used. The proposal also reportedly will change the way testing is done, limiting tests at homes with lead service lines, as opposed testing 50% of homes with lead service lines and 50% with lead fixtures/fittings/solder.
- Modest testing and information changes that are positive
The proposal reportedly will say that some schools and day care centers must be tested for lead, though it’s not clear whether all schools and day cares or all faucets and fountains must be tested, or how often. Additionally, early reports say if elevated lead levels are found in homes, the proposal would require customers to be told within 24 hours instead of the current 30 days.
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At 12:00 noon ET today, October 10, Olson and Jordan will be available to speak to media about the new rule, as will Dimple Chaudhary, Senior Attorney with NRDCand lead counsel in the Flint safe drinking water case.
Dial-in information here: 800-239-9838, confirmation code 6905556
NRDC Lead and Copper Rule Call
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From 6 to 10 million lead service lines remain in the ground throughout the U.S., and millions of households where water is leaching lead from plumbing.
The Lead and Copper Rule was issued in 1991. A recent NRDC analysis showed that between January 2015 and March 2018, at least 5.5 million Americans were served by water systems exceeding EPA’s “lead action level.” The report found that nearly 30 million people across the country got water from systems violating the Lead and Copper Rule during that time, and the infractions ranged from failing to properly treat water to control corrosion to failing to test the water for lead.
For more information, see “Here’s What’s Needed to Fix the EPA’s Outdated Lead in Tap Water Rule,” by NRDC’s Erik Olson.
NRDC’s 2016 report is here: What’s in Your Water? Flint and Beyond
For more on the Lead and Copper Rule, here is an EPA LCR Fact Sheet.
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The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.2 million members and online activists, served from offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Beijing.