EPA Promises, Yet Again, That It Will Do Something About America's Lead Pipes

Lead exposure can impair brain function and cause miscarriages, and yet millions of lead pipes remain in use.

Sometime this year, the Environmental Protection Agency will finally update the standard that has allowed toxic lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water ― and yours.

That’s what EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said this week, promising that the new version of the so-called Lead and Copper Rule would come out this summer.

“This is a regulation that hasn’t been updated in over 20 years,” Wheeler said in an interview published Wednesday. “And we are updating it for the first time.”

The EPA was supposed to have updated the regulation last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. The agency has been working on a major revision to the rule since 2010, and has repeatedly blown its own deadlines since at least 2016.

Given the history, experts are skeptical this time is different. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The rule requires utilities to test for lead in water samples taken from faucets inside people’s homes. But it gives utilities leeway to decide which taps to test, which allows them to game their results by testing at fewer homes known to have lead pipes. If a round of testing at multiple sites shows lead beneath a certain threshold, then the utility won’t have to take any remedial action, such as removing lead pipes. So the rule creates an incentive for utilities to avoid finding the deadly neurotoxin.

Yet Wheeler implied people should still have confidence in the current regulation, saying that 92 percent of America’s water currently “meets all the EPA requirements for safe drinking water.”

It’s a curious boast considering that Flint’s water also met EPA standards for lead ― at least until activists forced the agency to admit it was wrong. Officials said the Lead and Copper Rule testing regime showed Flint’s water was fine even as city residents complained that their water looked and tasted weird starting in 2014. The city had switched its water source and failed to treat the new water to prevent it from corroding the pipes that carry it to people’s houses. 

The crisis would never have been exposed if whistleblowers hadn’t independently confirmed high lead both in the water and in the blood of Flint children in 2015. Consuming lead can cause a host of health problems, including brain damage in children and miscarriages in pregnant women.

Flint has since switched back to its original source and has low lead levels according to what is probably the most rigorous testing regimen in the world. 

Wheeler noted that the “Obama EPA” failed to take swift action in Flint, but the EPA under President Donald Trump has postponed revisions to the lead regulation three times and sought additional input from local governments and utilities. Through their trade association, water providers say it shouldn’t be up to them alone to fix the problem, that doing so will be really expensive, and that it will take so long EPA shouldn’t bother to set any deadlines. And they love to point out that lead dust contributes more to lead exposure in children than water.

There are several million lead pipes in use in cities across the country. It’s possible through chemical treatment to reduce the amount of lead that leaches from the pipes into people’s drinking water, but not possible to eliminate the risk entirely. Olson and other experts want the new version of the Lead and Copper Rule to require utilities to proactively find and replace all the pipes.

“We have a very real fear that what they’re going to propose is not going to be a strengthening change,” Olson said.

Under the current rule, even if a utility finds high levels of lead in people’s water, it won’t necessarily have to replace any lead pipes. The rule was originally written in 1991, before most public health experts began to appreciate that even the tiniest doses of lead could subtract IQ points from small children.

Wheeler said the new version of the rule would include testing at public schools and daycares, which are currently excluded from the regulation even though they serve the most vulnerable population. (He also last month the EPA would set standards this year for other notorious chemicals currently omitted from Safe Drinking Water Act regulations.) 

Flint isn’t waiting around for the federal government to act on lead, having already embarked on an ambitious program to replace all the lead service lines that connect water mains to houses in the city. Few other cities have done the same. Replacing the pipes is often expensive because it can involve digging up the ground in front of people’s houses just to find out if a service line is in fact made of lead.  

Contrary to the gloomy assessment from other utilities, the water provider in Madison, Wisconsin, told the EPA it managed to finish replacing all its lead service lines in 2011 without too much trouble.

“Lead service replacement costs never exceeded 20 percent of our annual capital budget,” utility manager Tom Heikkinen said in a March 2018 letter to the EPA.