EDF Health

Selected tag(s): Lead in Drinking Water

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.

In October, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed changes to its outdated Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), the federal regulation designed to control those contaminants in drinking water.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 January 13, 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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Posted in Drinking Water, EPA, Health Policy, lead, Regulation, States / Also tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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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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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Lead from new “lead-free” brass faucets? An update on progress

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

[Update: On 10/23/19, the NSF committee responsible for revising NSF 61 tentatively agreed to tighten the limits on lead leaching from new faucets and drinking fountains. The committee will move forward with a formal vote and, if approved, will receive public comment on the proposed changes.]

Last year, we discovered and reported in a blog, that some new brass faucets that meet existing standards and are labelled “lead-free” can still leach significant amounts of lead into water in the first few weeks of use. Here, we answer some questions that have come up and provide an update on efforts to revise the NSF/ANSI 61 standard to better protect and inform consumers.

Last November, the committee responsible for revising the NSF/ANSI 61 standard convened a group to consider an optional certification for faucets that meet a more protective limit. A study of more than 500 models of faucets showed that 73% of faucets leach less lead into water and can meet a limit that is five times more protective for children. However, currently there is no easy way to identify these “lower lead” models. The optional certification would enable consumers, schools, and child care facilities to identify and purchase faucets that leach less lead to drinking water.

Unfortunately, as described later in this blog, representatives of the brass faucet manufacturers have worked to block the optional certification. As of August 2019, the committee has not decided whether to move forward with a proposal for the optional certification to receive public notice and comment. If the committee fails to move forward, we anticipate that some major retailers that sell brass faucets and other major buyers such as school districts and builders would use their leverage to set higher standards in their purchasing specification that favors models performing better on the NSF/ANSI 61 lead leaching test.

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ASDWA releases useful guidance to help states develop lead service line inventories

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

As we have explained in past blogs, it is critical that states have rough estimates of how many lead service lines (LSLs) each drinking water utility in the state may have in order to develop sound policy decisions and set priorities. Congress recognized the importance of LSL inventories when it directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 to develop a national count of LSLs on public and private property in the next round of the 2020 Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey. States have a crucial supporting role in the Needs Survey since it is the basis of allocating State Revolving Loan Funds to the states.

This month, the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) released a useful guidance document to help states develop LSL inventories. The guidance builds on the lessons learned from:

  • Mandatory surveys conducted by California, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin;
  • Voluntary surveys conducted by Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Washington; and
  • Responses to requests for updated Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) service line preliminary materials inventories conducted by Alabama, Louisiana, Kansas and Texas.

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Laws in states with the most lead service lines support using rates to fund replacement on private property: New analysis

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

We found no explicit barriers to using rate funds to replace the lines on private property in the 13 we focused on. These states have an estimated 4.2 million LSLs, more than two-thirds of the nation’s total

Lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes that connect a building’s plumbing to the water main under the street – are a significant source of lead in drinking water for those homes that have them. In light of the well-documented benefits to society from reducing children’s exposure to lead, there is a consensus that we need to replace the estimated six million LSLs remaining in the country. It will take time, but it needs to be done.

One challenge to this goal is how to fund replacement of the portion of the service line on private property. Because LSLs extend from under the street to a building, typically about half of the line is on public property and half is on private property. The perception among utilities has been that they do not have the legal authority to use rates paid by customers to cover the cost of replacing the portion on private property because it provides a benefit only to that property owner. This view was reinforced when the Wisconsin Public Service Commission blocked Madison from doing it, forcing the city to use other funds to complete the work. That decision from the early 2000s came before the risks of even low-level exposure to lead were well understood.

Many utilities have therefore taken to replacing only the portion of the LSL on public property when the property owner is unwilling or unable to pay to replace the portion on private property. The practice, often called “partial replacement,” is not only inefficient but can actually exacerbate residents’ exposure to lead. As evidence of the risks of even low-level exposure to lead—and of the society-wide benefits of reducing lead exposure—have mounted and the tragedy in Flint, Michigan made clear the need to replace LSLs, states like Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and even Wisconsin, have adopted new laws or policies that have allowed funds from rates, with some limitations, to be used to replace the side on private property. Michigan has gone further and adopted rules mandating the practice, although some utilities have challenged the rule in court.

Given the funding challenge and the trends in the states, EDF partnered with the Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School to review the state laws and policies in the 13 states with the most LSLs. Clinic Deputy Director Shaun Goho and law student Marcello Saenz conducted a state-by-state review of the laws, court decisions, and policies. The authors:

Found no explicit barriers to using rate funds to replace the lines on private property. These states have an estimated 4.2 million LSLs, more than two-thirds of the nation’s total. In these states, publicly-owned utilities can act pursuant to existing state legislation by determining that the practice serves a public purpose—protecting public health. Investor-owned utilities can do the same, but typically need approval of the state’s utility commission. While we have not reviewed the remaining states, we anticipate that the state laws and policies are similar to the ones we evaluated.

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