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EPA to Delay Start of Lead-Tainted Water Rule

March 22, 2021Article

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is delaying the start date of rules protecting children from lead contamination in drinking water to allow at-risk communities to voice their concerns over how the Revised Lead and Copper Rule finalized in December 2020 addresses exposure to lead in drinking water. The new rule was scheduled to go into effect on March 16th but is now slated to go into effect in June or possibly later. The rule has been criticized as a missed opportunity that would disproportionately allow wealthy areas to fix lead contamination issues while not doing more to help low-income areas.

In response to lead-tainted drinking water crises in Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, the EPA acted in December to formalize its first update to the lead and copper rule since 1991. The rule imposes new testing procedures, protections for elementary school-age children, and requirements for lead service line replacement. Under the rule, community drinking water providers would have to begin planning to control lead contamination once lead levels hit 10 parts per billion. At that level, “corrosion control treatment” systems must be put in place to reduce lead levels and, if a 15 ppb “action level” is reached across enough of the system, mandatory lead service line replacement will kick in.

Environmental groups criticized the EPA plan for failing to require the outright replacement of all lead service lines in the U.S. as a preemptive measure to prevent catastrophes like those in Flint and Newark. Former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in December that the old rule had loopholes that let water systems out of their obligations to replace lead lines even if there were elevated lead levels and that the new rule closes those loopholes and ensures that “lead pipes will be replaced in their entirety.”

Public and private drinking water providers should anticipate more robust requirements to be added following the public comment period, focusing on an accelerated schedule for replacing lead service lines in low-income communities.

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Author: Alfred J. Sargente (Partner, New York)