EDF Health

Despite its flaws, states and communities should get ahead of the curve on EPA’s proposed lead in drinking water rule

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director, Lindsay McCormick, Program Manager, and Sam Lovell, Project Manager.

See all blogs in our LCR series.

In October, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed changes to its outdated Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), the federal regulation designed to control those contaminants in drinking water. As the result of more than a decade of work by dedicated agency experts, the proposal makes several improvements to key parts of the rule, including requirements for lead service line (LSL) inventories and customer notification. LSLs are the lead pipes that connect the main under the street to homes and buildings and are the most significant source of lead in drinking water.

Unfortunately, EPA’s proposed rule has several serious flaws, including that it:

  • Continues to treat full LSL replacement as a last resort. The proposed rule should make LSL replacement an integral part of a long-term solution, including periodic benchmarks for all water systems to achieve regardless of water testing results.
  • Continues to allow water systems to conduct partial replacements where the property owner is unwilling or unable to pay the cost for the portion not owned by the water system. Partial LSL replacement may significantly increase lead levels in drinking water for months and does not reliably reduce lead levels in the long term. While water systems would be required to gives residents tools (e.g. advanced notice and filters) to reduce the exposure, more is needed. EPA’s own analysis finds that relying on a resident’s ability-to-pay to replace the LSL on their property to avoid partial replacements will leave low-income households with disproportionately higher health risks.
  • Backslides on the rate of mandatory LSL replacement. When a water system’s lead levels are so high that full LSL replacement is mandated, EPA proposes an annual replacement rate that gives the system at least 33 years rather than the current minimum of 15 years to replace all of its LSLs. While more systems are likely to have to conduct mandatory full LSL replacement because of the stricter sampling requirements, most will not.

EPA is accepting comments on the proposed revisions until February 12, 2020. We are preparing detailed comments calling for the agency to fix the flaws before finalizing the rule, and we encourage others to comment as well.

Despite these shortcomings, we want to highlight four positive elements of the proposed rule and encourage states and communities to consider implementing them now – not just because they are likely to be required in the future – but also because they set the stage for full LSL replacement. These elements are that water systems must:

  • Develop an LSL inventory, update it annually, and make it publicly accessible;
  • Notify customers that they have or may have an LSL;
  • Take precautions when disturbing LSLs; and
  • Sample more homes with LSLs and take earlier action based on the results.

In this blog, we provide an overview of these key improvements. In future blogs, we will describe our recommendations to strengthen the rule based on our comments to the agency.

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New Jersey takes major steps forward on lead in drinking water

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director.

When it comes to addressing the challenge of lead service lines (LSLs), recent events in New Jersey have set the stage for long-term progress amid short-term crises. The watershed moment came on October 10, when Jersey Water Works and Governor Phil Murphy held a joint press conference announcing their respective plans to reduce lead in drinking water that featured a shared goal of fully replacing the state’s estimated 350,000 LSLs within ten years. A week earlier, Congress enacted a law, authored by Senator Booker, enabling New Jersey – and other states as well – to secure critical funding by shifting the state’s share of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) to the Drinking Water SRF.

With the Governor’s announcement, New Jersey joins Michigan and Washington as the only states to commit to fully replacing LSLs. It also becomes a leader among the 16 states that have adopted policies in the past four years that support the hundreds of communities taking action to replace their LSLs.

As other states consider the LSL challenge, they should look to the process New Jersey used to reach this stage and its close coordination with state agencies.

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Illinois poised to strictly limit partial lead service line replacement: How does it compare to Michigan and proposed EPA rules?

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director and Lindsay McCormick, Program Manager

Illinois is poised to be the second state in the country to strictly limit the practice of partially replacing lead service lines (LSL). Partially – rather than fully – replacing these lines that connect the drinking water main under the street to homes can significantly increase lead levels in drinking water for months and does not reliably reduce lead levels over time. Last week, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) released amendments to the Illinois Plumbing Code that include significant restrictions on partial LSL replacements. If the state’s legislative oversight committee for rulemaking does not object, the agency can finalize the rule.

If adopted, the changes would set the stage for all LSLs and galvanized service lines in the state to eventually be fully replaced. The changes are significant because the Illinois has an estimated 679,000 LSLs, by far the most in the country, as well as 60,000 galvanized service lines, and an additional 1.07 million service lines of unknown material that may be lead.

Michigan, with its estimated 460,000 LSLs, took a similar action in June 2018 when it strengthened its version of Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). However, Michigan’s rule applies only to public water systems (PWS). In contrast, Illinois’s planned revisions apply to anyone who alters a service line including both PWSs and licensed plumbers.

In October, EPA proposed revisions to the LCR. However, unlike Michigan and Illinois, EPA’s proposed rule would continue to allow PWSs to conduct partial replacements where the property owner is unwilling or unable to pay the cost for the portion not owned by the PWS.

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Latest federal data on lead in food suggests progress made in 2016 was fleeting

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Total Diet Study (TDS) is an important source of data for both the agency and the public to estimate exposure, track trends, and set priorities for chemical contaminants in food. EDF analyzed TDS data for samples the agency collected from 2003-2013 in our 2017 report to reveal that lead in food was a hidden health threat. In follow-up blogs using TDS data from 2014-2016, we reported that overall trends for detectable rates of lead appeared to be on the decline, especially in 2016. In our analysis, we summarized that the trends were both good news and bad news for children because there were stubbornly high rates of detectable lead in baby food teething biscuits, arrowroot cookies, carrots, and sweet potatoes.

In this blog, we analyze the latest lead in food TDS data, released by FDA in August, and we take a new look at the trends. Overall, the 2017 data reversed the progress in 2016, largely driven by the percent of samples[1] with detectable lead in prepared meals nearly doubling from 19% to 39%. The good news is that fruit juices continued their dramatic and steady drop in samples with detectable lead, from 67% in 2016 to 11% in 2017. When we compared results for baby foods to similar samples of regular fruits and vegetables, the most notable finding was that baby carrots and peeled and boiled carrots had significantly lower detection rates than baby food carrot puree. Additionally, we were surprised to find that 83 of 84 samples of canned fruit had detectable levels of lead.

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Where are Illinois’ lead pipes? Chicago Water has nearly 60%, and small systems don’t know.

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director and Lindsay McCormick, Program Manager.

Chicago is the epicenter for lead service lines (LSLs) in the United States. In a report submitted to Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) in April, Chicago Water reported having 392,614 LSLs – 75% of the total service lines in its water system that serves 2.7 million people living in the city and the city’s 125 suburbs. The number of LSLs is over three times higher than any other city. For additional context, this number represents 58% of the known LSLs in Illinois and 6% of the estimated 6.1 million LSLs in the country.

Chicago Water also reported an additional 120,760 service lines as unknown material that may be lead. Only 7,299 (2%) of its total service lines are made of something other than lead.

These numbers are based on the second year of mandatory reporting that IEPA makes publicly available. Earlier this year, we summarized the first year of reporting. In the second year of reporting, IEPA improved the program by allowing CWSs to separately report lines of unknown material where the utility was confident they were not LSLs – most likely because the lines were installed after the date the CWS stopped allowing use of lead. So the remaining lines of “unknown material” were more likely to be lead. In addition, all community water systems (CWSs) in the state reported in the second year.[1] Given these improvements, we looked more closely at the data.

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Taking on the lead challenge: State and community action accelerates across the country

Sam Lovell, Project Manager and Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director.

In January, we reported on the tremendous progress made by states and communities in 2018 to replace lead service lines (LSLs) – the estimated 6.1 million lead pipes across the country that connect homes and other buildings to the water main under the street. At that time, our tracker stood at 95 communities and 16 states working to replace LSLs.

Half a year later, and the total number of communities (including municipalities and water utilities) EDF has learned of that are leading the way has swelled to 181.[1]

  • 7 communities located in Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin have publicly announced that they completely replaced all known LSLs.
  • 108 communities have publicly set a goal of eliminating LSLs on public and private property, totaling more than 381,000 LSLs. Nearly ¾ of these communities are served by the investor-owned utility, American Water’s, operations in Missouri (34 communities), Indiana (27 communities), and Pennsylvania (19 communities). For the remaining states, Wisconsin is leading the way with 11 communities followed by Michigan with five; Colorado and Massachusetts with two; and Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington each with one.
  • 66 communities are publicly taking steps to replace LSLs but have not yet set a goal of full replacement. These communities include 15 in Wisconsin; 12 in New York; 11 in Illinois; seven in Michigan and Massachusetts; five or fewer in Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia; and Washington, D.C.

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