Proposed EPA rule would strengthen protections against lead in drinking water, but timetable leaves too many Great Lakes residents in danger 

December 11, 2023

On December 6, 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) took an important step in protecting public health by proposing to significantly strengthen national drinking water regulations for toxic lead and copper. Most notably, U.S. EPA is proposing a requirement to remove lead service lines within 10 years for most water systems.

Lead is a heavy metal and neurotoxin that harms the brain and nervous system, leading to slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems in children. Lead is also linked to negative health impacts in adults, such as reproductive problems, increased risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular effects, and harm to the kidneys. Experts widely agree that there is no safe level of lead exposure.

For decades, lead was used in service lines, fixtures and solder throughout water systems; it was not until 1986 that Congress banned the use of new lead pipes and fixtures. Following the Flint tragedy that helped propel the issue of lead in drinking water as a national priority, advocates including the Alliance for the Great Lakes have been calling on local, state and federal officials to get the lead out of water systems. A major focus has been to mandate the removal of lead service lines that are often the largest contributors to lead levels in home drinking water.

U.S. EPA is now proposing a national mandate that water systems remove their lead service lines, with a default timeline for removal of 10 years. However, that mandate is substantially weakened by a proposed exception to the time frame for cities with the most lead service lines – including a number of cities in the Great Lakes region. Under the proposed rule, these cities could get decades more to remove lead service lines, including over 40 years for Chicago. It’s unacceptable that EPA would allow this pollution to persist for so long in some of the most impacted communities in our region.

In addition to calling for removal of lead service lines, advocates have called on U.S. EPA to strengthen requirements around water sampling for lead and copper, including the levels that trigger a response by a water system (known as the “action levels”) and what actions water systems must take when sampling exceeds the action levels. Advocates also have demanded enhanced public notice and engagement, to ensure that communities have a real say in how their water utilities respond to high levels of lead and copper. Along with mandating removal of lead service lines, U.S. EPA’s proposed rule strengthens the sampling requirements and action levels while enhancing public notice and participation requirements. The Alliance will be seeking additional improvements in these areas in our comments to U.S. EPA. 

To help address lead in drinking water, Congress has increased the amount of federal money that is available for lead service line removal. For example, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (IIJA) included $15 billion nationally for lead service line removal. EPA has been distributing this increased funding for lead service line removal to states for the last two years through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, with three more years of funding distributions left. That said, the need for additional action on funding for lead service line removal is significant – based on current lead line inventories, estimates for full removal range from $45-60 billion nationally.

U.S. EPA is accepting comments on the proposal through February 5, 2024, and is holding a virtual public hearing on the proposal on January 16, 2024 (to register, click here). The Alliance and our coalition partners will submit comments supporting, and requests for strengthening, the proposed rule. We hope U.S. EPA will move expeditiously to consider comments and adopt the strongest final rule possible, and we look forward to working closely with communities and water systems to ensure robust and speedy compliance.

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