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EPA Strengthens Policy Against Lead in Drinking Water, But Is It Enough?

Environment Policy Brief #131 | By: Katelyn Lewis | December 21, 2021

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Policy Summary

Federal officials announced Thursday their plan to tighten restrictions on the amount of lead allowed in drinking water in an effort to reduce the health hazards such exposure has caused in poor, often minority communities across the U.S.

“The challenge that we face is, without any question, great,” Vice President Kamala Harris said during the administration’s announcement of its whole-of-government Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. “Lead is built into our cities. It is laid under our roads and it is installed in our homes.”

The plan will distribute $2.9 billion to states, tribes, and territories to remove lead service lines in an effort to jumpstart the Biden administration’s goal of eliminating every lead service line across the U.S. It’s the first chunk of  $15 billion Congress approved toward lead service line replacement in the federal infrastructure bill passed in November, PBS NewsHour reports.

Lead enters drinking water when plumbing materials that contain lead – such as water main lines, lead pipes, and faucets – corrode, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Lead is also found in paint, dust, soil, air, and food, and it’s especially toxic for young children, infants, and fetuses, with lower exposure levels being linked to “damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells,” according to the agency.

“The science on lead is settled – there is no safe level of exposure and it is time to remove this risk to support thriving people and vibrant communities,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a statement released Thursday.

Lead service lines are usually the most significant source of lead in water, and they’re more often found in older cities and homes built before 1986. As many as 10 million lead service lines continue to deliver water to homes, schools, businesses, and daycares across the U.S., the New York Times reports.

The announcement comes amid rising lead-contaminated water issues in communities across the U.S. and seven years after the crisis in Flint, Michigan, became one of the most serious environmental health blunders related to lead-contaminated water in 2014.

Policy Analysis

The EPA held a series of 10 virtual events across the country this year to discuss updating the federal Lead and Copper Rule for drinking water, The Allegheny Front reports.

Thursday’s announcement was the result of those discussions, with the agency planning to issue guidance – such as best practices, case studies, and templates for lead service line inventories – to assist its partners in implementation of the revised rule and a newly proposed rule to strengthen the regulatory framework.

Two big elephants remain in the room, though.

First, while finally putting weight behind eradicating lead contamination, the allocated $15 billion was a significant reduction from the administration’s proposed $45 billion needed to eliminate all of the lead pipelines in the U.S. Some estimates put the required cost to replace all pipes across the country at $60 billion (see image reference).

In addition, administration officials did not set a specific timeline on completion, only stating they wanted to address it as soon as is “feasible,” the New York Times reports.

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Second, the agency did not indicate when it would update the lead contamination levels for drinking water, with a senior administration official only indicating to reporters the goal to finalize it by 2024. There has been no indication yet of what the new standard will be.

“The top priority must be to require removal of all lead pipes within the decade and to set a strict at-the-tap standard, which is the only way to prevent another generation of kids from drinking water through what is essentially a lead straw,” Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health at the Natural Resources Defense Council told PBS NewsHour.

“Good intentions won’t be enough to get the job done,” he added.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

ABC News / Associated Press – New lead testing method could reveal higher levels in water (Nov. 30, 2021) –  https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory/lead-testing-method-reveal-higher-levels-water-81465676

The Allegheny Front –  EPA listens to Pittsburgh leaders at roundtable on lead in drinking water (June 9, 2021) –  https://www.alleghenyfront.org/epa-comes-to-pittsburgh-for-roundtable-on-lead-in-drinking-water/

Environmental Protection Agency – Basic Information about Lead in Drinking Water (n.d.) – https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/basic-information-about-lead-drinking-water#getinto

The Hill – The infrastructure bill won’t eliminate lead pipes – which aren’t the biggest problem (Aug. 18, 2021) – https://thehill.com/opinion/healthcare/568303-the-infrastructure-bill-wont-eliminate-lead-pipes-which-arent-the-biggest

Natural Resources Defense Council – EPA Orders Benton Harbor, Michigan to Protect Residents from Lead-Contaminated Drinking Water (Nov. 2, 2021) – https://www.nrdc.org/media/2021/211102-0

Natural Resources Defense Council – Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know (Dec. 8, 2018) – https://www.nrdc.org/stories/flint-water-crisis-everything-you-need-know

New York Times – Biden Administration Promises Stricter Regulation of Lead in Drinking Water (Dec. 16, 2021) – https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/16/climate/biden-lead-drinking-water.html

PBS NewsHour – EPA details push to tighten rules for lead in drinking water (Dec. 16, 2021) – https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/epa-details-push-to-tighten-rules-for-lead-in-drinking-water

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