By Jake Abernethy and Eric Schwartz
As the baton was passed to a new U.S. presidential administration and EPA, so were the Lead and Copper Rule revisions, which are certain to be enacted with rigorous oversight.
The U.S. EPA has just released its new Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) Revision1, effective as of Jan. 15, 2021. This is the first major update to the rule in nearly 30 years. A three-year running clock for major aspects of the regulation started when the rule was posted in the Federal Register in mid-January. It is important for utilities to begin to take steps now so they can be in full compliance when those timelines become binding. This article will provide an overview of the major changes in the rule and insights on some of the steps that water systems can begin to take in order to get ready for the new rule’s implementation.
The major changes in the new rule include testing drinking water at elementary schools and childcare facilities, improving corrosion control when elevated lead levels are found, modifying the water-sample methodology, enhancing public notification when elevated lead levels are detected, and requiring all utilities to create and regularly update service-line inventories. The new rule also reduces the required rate of service-line replacement for water systems that exceed the lead action level.
Studies have shown that lead and copper primarily enter drinking water through plumbing materials, such as pipes. Health problems from lead and copper exposure range from stomach distress to brain damage. “In 2018, researchers estimated more than 400,000 deaths a year in the U.S. are linked to lead exposure,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
[Note: The Biden administration has put a freeze on all pending regulation that has not yet gone into effect, including the Lead and Copper Rule. This gives the administration an additional 60 days to review all regulations and determine if changes are necessary before going into effect.]
Changes to the LCR are divided into the following categories:
- Service Line Inventories and Replacement – establishes a trigger level to jump-start mitigation earlier and in more communities
- Public Communication – water systems are required to identify and make public the locations of lead service lines (LSLs)
- Sampling Requirements – new sample methods that include fifth-liter draws at sampling sites with lead service lines
- Corrosion Treatment and Water Quality Guidelines
- Specific Requirements for Children in Schools and Childcare Facilities – mandated testing in elementary schools and childcare facilities
Service Line Inventory And Replacement Requirements
- All water systems have three years to develop an initial LSL inventory or demonstrate the absence of LSLs. Water systems should begin organizing their records to develop the inventories. The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) created a guide to service-line inventories2 that can help utilities prepare. The inventories will be publicly accessible and must be updated periodically. Systems then must develop an LSL replacement plan based on their inventories. Predictive modeling is specified in the rule as a helpful strategy in guiding inventory-and-replacement programs.
- The new rule reduces the required minimum annual LSL replacement rate from 7 percent to 3 percent for exceedances of the lead action level of 15 μg/L. The rule also introduces a new trigger level of 10 μg/L, whereby exceedances would require states to work with a utility on a goal-based replacement program.
- All water systems subject to the LCR will be required to create a publicly accessible service-line inventory within three years. These inventories must identify service-line material as lead, galvanized requiring replacement, not lead, or lead status unknown. The inventories must reflect the entire service line from the main to the building inlet, regardless of ownership. Some utilities do not have records on the private side of the service line, and this rule reflects a change in what they are expected to know and report, making it even more essential that utilities be proactive in creating these inventories.
At a minimum, materials included in the inventory are to be on the basis of available records, including plumbing codes, permits, building department records, and water-system records. The initial inventory must be submitted to the state primacy agency within three years from final rule publication. Water systems have a lot of unknowns when it comes to service-line materials, and these unknowns can be difficult to communicate to the public.
There are triggers in the rule for achieving minimum replacement rates. Mandatory replacement programs can be triggered for either: (1) a lead action level exceedance of 15 μg/L, which would result in the requirement of the minimum annual replacement rate of 3 percent for large systems (smaller systems have alternative compliance options) or (2) an exceedance of the new lead trigger level of 10 μg/L, which would result in the state needing to propose a replacement rate. The new 3 percent replacement rate is based upon a two-year rolling average for at least four consecutive six-month monitoring periods.
Under the new rule, water systems: (1) must have a plan in place and start replacing lines as soon as sample results are above the action level, (2) cannot avoid replacing lead service lines through testing, and (3) are required to replace the water-system-owned portion of a lead service line when customers choose to replace their customer-owned portion of the line. Additionally, partial lead-service-line replacement, which could create a short-term spike in lead concentrations, do not count toward the replacement goals. In the meantime, water systems should begin compiling information for their service-line inventories and begin putting together their service-line replacement plans. As part of its rule, the EPA encouraged in its Public Comment and Response Document3 the use of predictive models for LSL inventory, replacement, and communication. “Water systems may also create a strategy that involves proactive investigation of service-line material compositions which is independent of other water system activities, such as the use of predictive models to evaluate the probability that a service line is lead and other methods provided or required by the state. Such predictive models could also inform water systems in how they can approach lead service-line replacement (LSLR) in a more efficient manner.”
- The LCR revisions impose new public notification requirements for service-line-material identification, as well as for when sampling exceeds the action/trigger levels.
Within 30 days of completing its initial LSL inventory and annually thereafter, water systems with LSLs must provide notice to households with service lines made of lead or with lead status unknown. The LCR specifies the notice must include information about the health effects of lead, steps customers can take to reduce lead exposure, and how to identify and remove an LSL.
Systems that serve more than 50,000 people must post the inventory on their websites, whereas other systems must only make the inventory publicly available in some way (e.g., having it available for viewing at the clerk’s office). Creating online maps that are user-friendly and apply best practices in public-health communication for community members to learn about service line materials can be a helpful tool in doing this. Additionally, communicating the results of a predictive model in the public-facing maps can help residents characterize uncertainty around the material of their service lines, providing information about how to reduce their risk of lead exposure.
Once LSL inventories have been created, water systems are required to provide public education to customers in advance of infrastructure work that will affect LSLs and lead-status-unknown service lines.
The water system must take a follow-up tap sample between three and six months after completion of any LSL replacement and provide those results to the building’s residents. When a gooseneck is encountered or LSL replacement occurs on an emergency basis, the system has 24 hours to deliver a pitcher filter and educational information.
Water systems will be required to notify the occupants of the residence of high-lead water concentrations within 24 hours of discovery. This is a significant change from the previous 30-day requirement.
These public notification requirements will impose a new burden on utilities, especially for those systems that do not already have public communication strategies in place.
- The rule adds a fifth-liter sample to water testing as part of the compliance-sampling program.
- It also expands sampling and reporting requirements based on the action and trigger levels with a “find-and-fix” strategy of taking corrective action once exceedances are observed.
To help identify areas most in need of remediation, the LCR revision prioritizes collecting samples from sites served by LSLs. This includes maintaining the existing requirement of first-liter sampling in homes without LSLs and imposing a new requirement of fifth-liter sampling in homes with LSLs. These samples will be collected after the water has been stagnant for at least six hours. Fifth-liter sampling has been part of Michigan’s lead and copper compliance. Michigan’s rule requires first- and fifth-liter sampling at homes with likely LSLs, whereas the new LCR only requires fifth-liter sampling at those homes. Utilities can look to resources about the Michigan requirement as they modify their sampling requirements to meet the new regulation.
Semi-annual sampling is now required of systems without compliant data and of systems with 90th-percentile lead or copper levels greater than the action level (15 μg/L). Annual sampling will be required of systems with LSLs and of systems with 90th-percentile lead or copper levels greater than the trigger level (10 μg/L) but less than the action level (15 μg/L).
To reduce elevated levels of lead in certain locations, the rule revision requires water systems to “find and fix” the causes of these elevated levels. Individual tap samples that exceed the action level of 15 μg/L require an additional tap sample to be collected within 30 days and corrective actions to be taken.
While states have the authority to require a system to evaluate corrosion control at any time, the rule explicitly requires evaluations when a system exceeds either the lead trigger level or action level (see next section).
Corrosion Control Treatment And Water Quality Guidelines
- The LCR specifies corrosion control treatment (CCT) requirements and water quality parameters for systems based on lead-sampling results and system size.
For systems with 90th-percentile lead levels of 10 to 15 μg/L, if the system does not have CCT, it must conduct a CCT study if required by the state primacy agency. If the system does have CCT, it must follow steps for re-optimizing its CCT.
Systems with 90th-percentile lead levels greater than 15 μg/L that do not currently have CCT must install CCT immediately, regardless of subsequent lead levels. Those with CCT must also re-optimize.
Community water systems serving fewer than 10,000 people and nontransient water systems can select an option other than CCT to address lead exceedances.
Systems serving more than 50,000 people must conduct regular water-quality-parameter monitoring at entry points and within the distribution system. Systems serving fewer than 50,000 people must continue water-quality-parameter monitoring until they no longer exceed lead action levels for two consecutive six-month monitoring periods.
If an individual tap sample exceeds 15 μg/L, systems must collect a follow-up sample at each location, conduct water-quality-parameter monitoring at or near the site, and perform needed corrective action. Such requirements are referred to as “find-and-fix” protocols.
Schools And Childcare Facilities
- Water systems must conduct lead-in-drinking-water testing at 20 percent of elementary schools and licensed childcare facilities in their service areas each year and conduct sampling at secondary schools on request.
This new rule revision puts in place for the first time a requirement that community water systems test for lead in drinking water in elementary schools and childcare facilities they serve. The sample results of the test must be provided to each sampled school/ childcare facility, the primacy agency, and the local or state health department. This requirement excludes facilities built or those that have replaced all plumbing after Jan. 1, 2014.
Over the coming months, the EPA and water industry groups will be putting together guidance and resources to support utilities in adopting these new rules. Further details can be found in the EPA’s Reference Guide for Public Water Systems.4
About The Authors
Jake Abernethy and Eric Schwartz are the cofounders of BlueConduit. Additionally, Abernethy is an associate professor in computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Schwartz is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. They have pioneered the use of machine learning to help municipalities and utilities identify and inventory lead service lines, helping municipalities save millions of dollars and accelerating the remediation of this critical health issue. Initially working in Flint, MI, BlueConduit now works with municipalities across the United States and Canada. Recognized as a leader in its field, BlueConduit has provided legislative policy development support and has had its work recognized by several media outlets (https://www.blueconduit.com/blog).