EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has begun an effort to “eradicate” lead poisoning from drinking water, more than three years after the crisis in Flint, Michigan, started.
Pruitt hosted a meeting Jan. 8 for state and local officials at agency headquarters in Washington to obtain feedback on ways to update the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, a federal mandate that dictates how communities test for lead in drinking water. It has not been revised in more than a decade.
Participants are convinced Pruitt is committed to making the rule tougher as the main focus of his “war on lead."
“I got the sense there really is a serious undertaking at the EPA to revise the Lead and Copper Rule,” said Steve Via, director of federal relations for the American Water Works Association, which represents water utilities. “I took the ‘war on lead’ as being lead is a public health concern, and this administration has placed an emphasis on contaminants that have a public health impact.”
Critics question Pruitt’s sincerity, noting his aggressive agenda to delay, weaken, or eliminate other EPA rules, and suggesting the agency may try to weaken the Lead and Copper Rule to help the industry.
“Scott Pruitt knows what he is doing,” said Ronnie Levin, who manages the water and health program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and helped write the original Lead and Copper Rule. She left the EPA in August.
“Pruitt has been fighting EPA for many years, and has invested his entire professional career in figuring out how to sabotage protecting the environment. He has a very clear agenda, and so in this sense, I don't particularly think lead is a priority of his.”
Lead is a heavy metal that was used for decades in pipes and paint that is especially harmful to children, causing learning disabilities and slower growth.
The Lead and Copper Rule governs how much lead is acceptable in drinking water and what utilities must do if their water tests above the threshold. It requires public water systems to periodically test for lead and copper, limiting the amount of lead in drinking water to no more than 15 parts per billion. If more than 10 percent of sites sampled by water utilities in an area exceed 15 parts per billion, the utilities have to improve their corrosion control methods, and they eventually might have to replace their lead pipes.
Environmental advocates have argued for years that the law is easy to exploit and hard to enforce. Utilities are not required to test all sites, only “high risk” ones. Advocates say utilities are able to easily cheat compliance, manipulating sampling methods to temporarily lower lead levels without implementing corrosion control techniques or replacing pipes.
“The rule is not perfect,” Via said. “There are opportunities to make it better.”
Facing pressure during the Flint water crisis, the Obama administration initiated a process for revising the Lead and Copper Rule, proposing improvements such as strengthening the standards for replacing aging lead pipes.
But the EPA was not able to complete the update, and the Trump administration says it will finish the job, targeting August for a proposed revision to the rule. The agency delayed consideration of a new rule after promising to release one by January.
Pruitt has often criticized the Obama administration for its handling of the Flint water crisis, in which corroded pipes caused by a change in fresh water sources tainted the city’s drinking water with lead.
“There are tremendous challenges we have across the country with respect to service lines, in particular, communities and the lead that's seeping into the water supply of our children,” Pruitt said at a Dec. 7 House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. “It's one of the greatest environmental threats, I think, we face as a country, and one of the things that I hope that I can work with this committee on as we go into 2018 is a strategy over a 10-year period to eradicate those concerns.”
Experts say federal requirements for testing lead in water are difficult to enforce and strengthen.
That’s because lead typically enters water when it passes through lead service lines, after it has exited a treatment plant. Lead service lines are small pipes that connect homes and businesses to the larger main drinking water line in the streets.
So, testing for lead, unlike other contaminants, must occur in people’s homes. Injecting anti-corrosion chemicals to drinking water can help manage the risk by preventing leaching, but replacing lead pipes is the best way to combat lead, according to a 2015 report by an external group of drinking water advisers organized by the EPA.
Replacing lead service lines is expensive. It's also challenging because there’s uncertainty around who owns the lines — the water utility or homeowner — since they straddle public and private property.
In addition to the challenges of funding and ownership, most utilities do not know where pipes are located due to poor recordkeeping. Some were built as early as the 1920s.
“The Lead and Copper Rule is unique in that it shares responsibility between water companies and customers to protect people from lead at the tap,” said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech scientist credited with discovering the Flint crisis. “It creates a massive legal mess that no one wants to deal with. Everyone knows what we want to do. Replace these lead pipes, find them, and get them out of the ground. The question is how, and who pays what, when there is very little discretionary funding.”
The EPA, in its recent meeting with state and local officials, asked for input on the feasibility of replacing all lead service lines as part of a revised Lead and Copper Rule.
Pruitt, in his December testimony to Congress, expressed concern over the cost — up to $30 billion — of replacing the 7 million to 11 million lines that are believed to exist across the country.
“I understand that's a costly endeavor,” Pruitt said. "Look, it's not just service lines; it's corrosion control measures that need to be deployed, obviously paint as well. So, there's a multi-faceted approach that we need to evaluate on how to ‘declare a war on lead,’ if you will."
Some states and cities are taking their own action to strengthen rules, tired of waiting after delays by two administrations. Pruitt pointed to Michigan’s progress in reforming its state-based Lead and Copper Rule.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder announced the new initiative in March, saying "the federal Lead and Copper Rule is dumb and dangerous."
Five officials in Michigan were charged with involuntary manslaughter for their role in the Flint water crisis, where lead poisoning led to deadly outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease. The officials charged include two cabinet-level officials in Snyder's administration.
“The Flint water crisis was and is a failure of leadership,” said an investigative report issued in June by Bill Schuette, Michigan’s attorney general. “A cause of the breakdown in state governmental management was a fixation, a preoccupation, with data, finances and costs, instead of placing the health, safety and welfare of citizens first.”
Eric Oswald, the director of the water division for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, told the Washington Examiner the state’s proposed rule would require water utilities to investigate where lead service lines are located and to document lead levels.
The water division has faced the brunt of the blame for Flint's tainted water. Four of its officials face criminal charges. Liane Shekter-Smith, the head of the water division during the Flint crisis, was fired.
“We are focused on lessons learned from Flint,” said Oswald, who took over the water division in May, and was not present during the Flint crisis.
The state's new plan would require utilities to replace the line within 20 years if lead exceeds 10 parts per billion, a tougher standard than the 15 parts per billion federal threshold.
Oswald said the state considered forcing all lead service lines to be replaced, regardless of lead level, but the concept proved too expensive. Michigan has an estimated 500,000 lead service lines, which would cost an average of $5,000 each to replace, so $2.5 billion in total. Flint has already replaced more than 6,000 lines under a separate settlement agreement between advocacy groups and state and local officials.
Oswald acknowledges the state’s plan is expensive, and ratepayers may see higher water bills. Michigan proposes a $10 million pilot project to help water companies pay for replacing the pipes.
“As the state of Michigan, we don't want to wait around to protect public health as best we can,” Oswald said. “Our ultimate goal is to get lead out of the system. If your water bill goes up by $1.50 month, and you eliminate all the lead, is that worth it? It's a question people have to ask themselves.”