EPA Considers Lead and Copper Rule Revisions After Pushback

By: Bill Eller

Lawsuits and executive orders have made the lead and copper rule revisions uncertain as the Environmental Protection Agency continues to solicit public comment, with the deadline moved to June 17. Additionally, the EPA has proposed to extend the compliance deadline to Sept. 16, 2024, and activists have expressed concern this will delay lead pipe replacement.

The EPA announced the continuance was to allow those who are disproportionately impacted by lead leeching into drinking water to comment on the lead and copper rule revisions. Systems that show high levels of lead are 40 percent more likely to be in communities where a significant part of the residents are people of color.

In addition to the executive order which “froze” the lead and copper rule revisions, several environmental groups sued the EPA in December, citing a “roll back” that would have communities reaching the action level replacing 3 percent of lead pipes for two years, instead of 7 percent for one year. Environmentalists have expressed concerns this will result in less lead pipe replacements over a longer period, while government officials said, because of prior loopholes in the lead and copper rule, an average of only 1 percent of lead pipes were being replaced annually.

As the lead and copper rule revision is considered, regulators will focus on identifying the most impacted areas, lead pipe replacement, increasing sampling reliability and strengthening corrosion prevention treatment requirements. The lead and copper rule revisions will also require utilities to inform residents within 24 hours of the trigger level of 15 ppb in 10 percent of tested pipes being reached and establishes stronger testing requirements in daycares and schools.

The lead and copper rule has been instrumental in lead pipe replacement throughout the country, and action level exceedances have decreased by more than 90 percent since it was instituted in 1991. In fact, approximately 97 percent of systems haven’t reported an actionable exceedance in three years, according to June 2019 data.

Lead poisoning can cause damage to the neurological, cardiovascular and immune systems. There are no safe levels of lead, and lead poisoning is especially dangerous to pregnant women and small children. The most common lead sources in drinking water are lead pipes, solder and brass fittings in fixtures, and lead that can dissolve into water or enter as flakes or miniscule particles.

One of the biggest problems surrounding the lead and copper rule is water service line replacements, and there are an estimated 6 to 10 million lead water service lines still in service. This private infrastructure isn’t owned by utilities, many of which are struggling to fund improvements to the community-wide systems. In addition, lead pipe replacements on the public side can cause increased lead contamination on the private side, because work can stir up particles in the line for months afterwards. 

Water service line replacements are expensive and many of those most at risk, including low-income families, can’t afford to replace these aging and dangerous service lines. Some utilities have made low- or no-interest loans for part or all of the cost of line replacement; covered the cost of the water service line replacement when the utility was replacing the public part of the service line; or provide financial assistance based on household income. To finance this, utilities have raised rates, rented out space on water towers, budgeted the cost as part of corrosion control efforts or sought federal aid.

Federal funding is available through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act Grants, the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act and Housing and Urban Development Community Block Development Grants. The American Jobs Plans, with a $2 trillion price tag, promises to direct $45 billion toward 100 percent lead pipe replacements, along with $56 billion more for improvements to drinking water, wastewater and storm water systems, and $10 billion to monitoring and remediating PFAS, or the “forever chemical,” if the bill is passed. However, this may not be enough – the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that drinking water and wastewater investment gap will grow to $434 billion by 2029, and the cost to comply with the lead and copper rule revisions will cost utilities an additional $130 million to $386 million.

Utilities can help their residents with water service line replacements at no cost to themselves, and, in fact, generate an alternative revenue stream to assist with costs associated with operations with a partnership with the National League of Cities Service Line Warranty Program. The Program can help utilities educate residents about their responsibility to maintain their service lines and offers an optional warranty to shield residents from the financial shock of an unanticipated service line repair. The Program offers customers a 24/7/365 home repair emergency hotline, and local, licensed and insured plumbers are dispatched to make the repair.

For more information on how the Program can help you address water service line replacements, contact us.