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EPA proposes tightening Trump rule on lead pipes

A worker shovels sand into a trench as a utility crew installs new water pipe in Walnut Creek, Calif., earlier this year.
A worker shovels sand into a trench as a utility crew installs new water pipe in Walnut Creek, Calif., earlier this year. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The EPA has decided to implement the Trump administration’s lead and copper rule while proposing additional new requirements intended to address concerns that it doesn’t go far enough to protect the public.

The agency announced its approach Thursday along with a number of other actions across the government to remediate lead paint in homes and address lead contamination in drinking water.

In its closing weeks in office, the Trump administration finalized the first updates in decades to lead and copper rules for water utilities. Under the updated rule, utilities that exceed 10 parts of lead per billion have to work with state regulators on plans to replace lead service lines and at 15 parts per billion communities would be required to replace at least 3 percent of known or suspected lead lines per year.

Critics suggested that represented a slower replacement rate than a previous 7 percent requirement. Then-EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler defended the proposal by saying that it also closed a number of loopholes that had kept the actual replacement rate much lower.

In previewing Thursday’s announcement, a senior administration official said the Biden administration is committed to addressing lead service lines and has serious concerns about the trigger levels included in the Trump rule, as well as the lack of a requirement that 100 percent of lead lines be replaced. However, the official said the rule does have near-term public health protections, such as a requirement that utilities inventory their lead service lines by 2024.

That requirement is key due to uncertainty over just how many lead service lines exist and where they are. Estimates are that the country has 6 million to 10 million lead service lines, with disadvantaged communities particularly at risk.

While the Trump rule will go into effect, the EPA proposed its own rule that will include a requirement that 100 percent of lead service lines are replaced as quickly as feasible, with an approximate timeline of 10 years. The agency also said it will evaluate other aspects of the rule such as its testing requirements and action trigger levels.

The EPA also announced it is allocating about $3 billion to states, tribes and territories for lead service line replacement in 2022, with a call to prioritize underserved communities. That funding comes from the $15 billion over five years included specifically for the purpose in the bipartisan infrastructure law (PL 117-58).

Other actions include establishing regional technical assistance hubs to fast-track lead service line removal projects, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarding grants for removing lead paint and other home health hazards and the Treasury Department clarifying that $350 billion in the American Rescue Plan’s State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund can be used to replace lead service lines.

Vice President Kamala Harris went to the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington to talk about the broader action plan Thursday morning, highlighting its potential for creating union jobs for carpenters and plumbers. Harris also focused on the environmental justice element of the plan, with its call to prioritize disadvantaged communities that have historically been left out of lead remediation efforts.

“When some communities learn that there is lead in their homes or in their schools, if they have the resources or the influence, then action is taken,” Harris said. “However, so often for poor communities, rural communities, communities of color, that does not happen.”

It’s the latest in a series of administration events touting the benefits flowing from the bipartisan infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law last month.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, welcomed the administration’s action plan in a statement.

“I often look to scripture as a moral guide, which calls on us to quench the thirst of those in need. Yet, for far too long, far too many Americans have not been able to trust the water that comes out of their faucets,” Carper said. “Fortunately, that’s going to soon change thanks to the administration’s swift implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

The decision to implement the Trump rule and then improve it struck some advocates as a gamble, however.

Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director of health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement that EPA’s pledge to take aggressive action on lead is appreciated but “good intentions won’t be enough to get the job done” and that the agency must move to re-write the Trump rule immediately.

The NRDC has advocated for EPA to replace its 15 parts per billion action level with a strict maximum lead contaminant level of five parts per billion.

“It’s clear that the Biden administration hopes to overhaul this fundamentally flawed rule and to make urgently-needed fixes,” Olson said. “But based on past performance, there is a risk that EPA will not get around to fully and promptly overhauling and strengthening it.”  

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