Cities must replace lead pipes within 10 years under new EPA plan

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Most U.S. cities would have to replace lead water pipes within 10 years under strict new rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency as the Biden administration moves to reduce lead in drinking water and prevent public health crises like the ones in Flint, Michigan and Washington, D.C.

Millions of people consume drinking water from lead pipes and the agency said tighter standards would improve IQ scores in children and reduce high blood pressure and heart disease in adults. It is the strongest proposed overhaul of lead rules in more than three decades, and will cost billions of dollars. Pulling it off will require overcoming enormous practical and financial obstacles.

“These improvements ensure that in a not-too-distant future, there will never be another city and another child poisoned by their pipes,” said Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and clean water advocate who raised early alarms about Flint.

Indiana ranks 14th among states in lead pipes, according to a recent Environmental Protection Agency report that estimates there are more than 250,000 lead-lined water pipes statewide. The EPA estimates it would cost Indiana $11.7 billion to replace those pipes.

Lead service lines make up 2.9 percent of total service lines in the state, and many of those can be found in Indianapolis.

Citizens Energy Group said there are no active lead water mains in Indianapolis, but estimated that 55,000 to 75,000 homes and businesses built before 1950 might have lead service lines and/or lead plumbing. Those lines are typically owned by the property owners. The utility has received approval from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to implement a multi-year program to eliminate customer-owned lead service lines at no cost to the owners.

The Biden administration has previously said it wants all of the nation’s roughly 9 million lead pipes to be removed, and rapidly. Lead pipes connect water mains in the street to homes and are typically the biggest source of lead in drinking water. They are most common in older, industrial parts of the country.

Lead crises have hit poorer, majority-Black cities like Flint especially hard, propelling the risks of lead in drinking water into the national consciousness. Their impact reaches beyond public health. After the crises, tap water use declined nationally, especially among Black and Hispanic people. The Biden administration says investment is vital to fix this injustice and ensure everyone has safe, lead-free drinking water.

“We’re trying to right a longstanding wrong here,” said Radhika Fox, head of the EPA Office of Water. “We’re bending the arc towards equity and justice on this legacy issue.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., representing states that have faced lead crises, agreed in a joint statement, citing both the new rule and the Biden administration’s infrastructure investments. “We can make a lead-free future a reality for all, no matter the color or their skin or their zip code,” it said.

The proposal, called the lead and copper rule improvements, would for the first time require utilities to replace lead pipes even if their lead levels aren’t too high. Most cities have not been forced to replace their lead pipes and many don’t even know where they are.

There are some exceptions to the 10 year lead pipe replacement deadline. A few cities like Chicago with lots of lead pipes might get more time. Water utilities with dense networks of lead pipes—as many as 2,000 of them—could also get more than 10 years, the proposal says.

The push to reduce lead in tap water is part of a broader federal effort to combat lead exposure that includes proposed stricter limits on dust from lead-based paint in older homes and child-care facilities and a goal to eliminate lead in aviation fuel.

The EPA enacted the first comprehensive lead in drinking water regulations in 1991. Those have significantly helped reduce lead levels, but experts have said they left loopholes that keep lead levels too high and lax enforcement allows cities to ignore the problem.

“We now know that having literally tens of millions of people being exposed to low levels of lead from things like their drinking water has a big impact on the population” and the current lead rules don’t fix it, said Erik Olson, an expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council who challenged the original regulations back in the early 1990s. “We’re hoping this new rule will have a big impact.”

In addition, the EPA announced it wants to lower the level of lead at which utilities are forced to take action. And federal officials are pushing cities to do a better job informing the public when elevated lead levels are found.

Another change involves how lead is measured. Utilities would need to collect more samples and this alone could have significant consequences–when Michigan did something similar, the number of communities flagged for having high lead levels skyrocketed.

The public will have a chance to comment on the proposal and the agency expects to publish a final version of the rule in the Fall of 2024. There is then a waiting period before it goes into effect.

Unlike other contaminants, lead seeps into drinking water that’s already left the treatment plant. The main remedy is to add chemicals to keep it from leaching out of pipes and plumbing fixtures. It’s hard. A home with dangerous lead levels can be next to a house with no lead exposure at all.

It will ultimately be up to utilities to decide whether to pay the full cost of replacing lead pipes, which is too expensive for many people to afford.

“We strongly, strongly encourage water utilities to pay for it,” Fox said.

The American Water Works Association, an industry group, said it supports the agency’s pipe replacement goals but there would be significant challenges. Costs are going up, it’s hard to secure homeowner permission to do pipe replacement work and other contaminants like harmful “forever chemicals” called PFAS will also vie for financial resources and time, the group said.

President Donald Trump’s administration addressed lead in water, issuing new standards just before the end of his term, after years of efforts by advocates. Those rules forced utilities to take stronger action when lead levels rose too high and required them to test day-care centers and schools. They also made communities locate their lead pipes—initial inventories are due in October 2024.

But environmental groups criticized the rule for not going far enough. In response, the Biden administration said it would make the improvements officials announced Thursday.

The 2021 infrastructure law included $15 billion to find and replace lead pipes. More will be needed. Additional federal funds are available to improve water infrastructure and the EPA is providing smaller communities with extra help. Some states, however, have been slower to attack the problem—a handful declined the first round of federal lead pipe funds.

A few communities have replaced pipes quickly. After crises in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, officials paid for and efficiently replaced lead pipes, adopting novel rules that required homeowners to let construction crews onto their property to do the work.

Replacing the country’s lead pipes will be expensive, but the EPA says the health benefits far outweigh the cost.

Those benefits, Fox said, “are really priceless.”

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8 thoughts on “Cities must replace lead pipes within 10 years under new EPA plan

    1. I surprised it was only 3% and 14th place isn’t that bad. If you want cast blame throw it on the utility companies. In all fairness they can’t replace EVERY line under the ground. It can costs millions of dollars to replace infrastructure.

    2. The fact that Citizens estimates that there are 55,000 to 75,000 lead service lines in place tells me that they really haven’t even taken a look to see what they have. This has been a known problem for 20 years, and priority since we’ve seen what happened in Flint.

  1. I live near downtown and I was lucky enough to afford to replace my own 50’ of lead water service line from the main to the meter. It was expensive. Very few of my neighbors could afford such a thing. The state legislature passed a law a few years ago to allow local water utilities to replace pipes all the way into the house specifically to remove lead pipes. There was a flood of federal dollars to remove lead pipes. In Michigan where this is a mandate, when utility companies replace lead service lines en-mass, the cost is about 1/5 of what I paid to have it done as private home owner.

    I wrote to Citizens not too long after the state passed the new legislation. I don’t think it’s even a priority with them, because I never even got a reply.

    I’m deeply disappointed that a company that seems as responsible as Citizens hasn’t made this more of a priority. It is not shocking to me that this is going to require a federal mandate to fix.

  2. This is another misguided expenditure with no clearly quantifiable results. Many of the houses with lead pipes are older homes that may very well be at the end of their life expectancy. If there is an actual problem (e.g., the lead actually tests high), then fix those. Stop allowing government to mandate a one-size-fits-very-few solution to problems that don’t really exist. This certainly is not a federal issue – it’s a local government issue.
    Lead pipes don’t normally leach lead, because there is basically a layer of “slime” on the inside of the pipes. The problem in Flint was when the know-it-all government actors decided to futz with the water supply, which resulted in the “slime” going away–that’s when the lead leached. Thus, the problem that the feds use to justify overreach here was caused by the government (as are many of our real problems). Same with lead paint – the key is to just leave it there and keep repainting over it. When you take the lead paint out, then you have to deal with all the unnecessarily expensive remediation. The feds should stay out of it and spend their time doing an internal audit to eliminate waste inside the government agencies.

    1. The know-it-all government actor was appointed by the governor of Michigan who’d decided that the people of Flint couldn’t have their own elected officials, that they knew better.

      But keep going with all the insight, because state interference with local issues is obviously superior. 🙄

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