Energy & Environment

EPA’s independent science board, critics push for stronger lead rule

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal to address lead in water isn’t as aggressive as it could be, the agency’s independent science advisers, as well as outside groups, said Monday.

At a hearing of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), both members and others from environment and public health groups said the agency should do more to replace the lead service lines that connect an estimated 6 million houses to the water main, contaminating water as it runs through the pipes.

The October proposal from the EPA doesn’t lower the 15 parts per billion (ppb) lead action level, instead adding a 10 ppb “trigger level” that pushes cities to add treatments to water to counter the lead.  

It also slows the rate at which cities must replace those lead service lines — just 3 percent a year rather than the current requirement of 7 percent.

In its latest report, the SAB came out against the proposed trigger level, saying it “adds unnecessary complexity resulting from having to make lead management decisions” while not enacting stricter limits that recognize there is no safe level of lead.

The report also questioned the cost-benefit analysis behind the proposal, saying it excluded assumptions that “would likely support more aggressive efforts to replace service lines.” 

Part of the fear expressed by health advocates is that the EPA plan would lead to more partial replacements of lead service lines, where cities replace those on the city side of the property line but leave homeowners to foot the bill to replace those from the sidewalk to the house.

Cutting into a lead line, however, can disturb lead in the pipes, actually releasing more lead into the home’s water.

Public health advocates hoped the EPA would do more to ramp up replacements of both sides of the lines instead of easing requirements on how many lines cities with elevated lead levels must replace.

“EPA should require water systems to cover the full cost of replacement, regardless of ownership or location of the line,” said Lynn Thorp, national campaign director for Clean Water Action, as partial replacements “can increase lead exposure for days, months or even longer.” 

Slowing the rate at which cities must replace lead service lines could also have serious consequences, many callers said, urging the agency to move more swiftly that the 30-year timeline they proposed.

Elin Betanzo, head of Safe Water Engineering, said the EPA “should mandate full lead service line replacements over 10 years that are not dependent on a homeowners ability to pay.”

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, when unveiling the proposal last October, called it the first “major” overhaul of lead rules since 1991.

“By improving protocols for identifying lead, expanding sampling, and strengthening treatment requirements, our proposal would ensure that more water systems proactively take actions to prevent lead exposure, especially in schools, child care facilities, and the most at-risk communities,” he said at the time.

Tags Andrew Wheeler EPA Lead

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