EPA’s proposed lead pipe crackdown spurs debate

By Shannon Kelleher

Proposed revisions to a national drinking water regulation designed to reduce exposure to lead in US drinking water are drawing applause from many sectors, but also criticism as industry groups worry about how to meet the stricter standard and environmental and health advocates fear the proposed requirements don’t go far enough.

The regulatory move comes after public outcry in response to recognition that communities around the country could be at risk of the type of contamination that occurred in  Flint, Michigan in 2014 when the town’s drinking water became contaminated with lead from corroded pipes. The toxic metal, which is a known health hazard, particularly to children, has also been found in the tap water of Chicago residents.

“Now, there’s a new proposed rule, there’s lots of money, and there is a deadline, so now people are mobilizing to implement,” said Alfredo Gomez, director of Natural Resources and Environment at the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). But, he said, “some folks are supportive of the proposed rule, and others are concerned.”

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s proposed changes would require water systems to replace lead service lines within 10 years of the rule going into effect. An estimated 9.2 million water service lines provide water to communities across the nation. The agency would also compel utilities to take stronger measures to prevent lead in the pipes from entering the water through corrosion by reducing the level at which utilities are required to take mitigation action for lead from 15 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb. The EPA action builds on revised regulations introduced in 2021.

The new move to address lead in drinking water, which the EPA proposed in late November, is among a host of actions the agency has recently taken to crack down on a wide range of harmful environmental pollutants. The agency issued an enforcement alert in late 2023 calling out “widespread noncompliance” with the first US regulation on toxic coal ash, and earlier this month it announced a proposal that would help ensure cleanups of pervasive chemicals known as PFAS at hazardous waste facilities. Last week, the EPA finalized stronger air quality standards to reduce soot pollution.