By Peter Chawaga
After over a year since a public health emergency was declared over lead-contaminated water in Flint, MI, it would be fair to call the fallout momentous.
Communities all over the country have come forth with their own lead contamination revelations, cities have planned massive infrastructure overhauls to rid themselves of lead service lines, and in possibly the most significant outcome, the federal government is considering changes to the way it regulates lead in public drinking supplies.
The U.S. EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) was instituted as part of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1991 to limit concentrations of the contaminants at consumers’ taps and to reduce the amount of pipe corrosion on drinking water lines. According to a recent blog post from EPA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water Joel Beauvais, the rule has been effective in reducing the median blood lead levels of young children. However, the agency has initiated revisions to the rule.
“To further reduce exposure to lead from drinking water, EPA recognizes the need to strengthen and modernize the Lead and Copper Rule, which is now 25 years old,” the agency told Water Online. “EPA has been working intensely to develop proposed revisions to the LCR and we expect to propose a rule in 2017. With that in mind, EPA released the ‘White Paper on the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions’ to ensure that stakeholders are informed of the options that EPA is considering as part of the rulemaking process.”
In the white paper, released late last month, the agency cites recent crises in Washington, DC and Flint, and the subsequent national outcry, as indicators of challenges with the current rule. The rule is complex and its structure may only compel a system to take action after public health threats have already been identified. It also leaves room for interpretation in how corrosion control treatment and compliance sampling is carried out, aspects of the current rule that were abused by officials in Flint. The paper also acknowledged the potential to add more focus on key areas of concern, like schools.
“There is a compelling need to modernize and strengthen implementation of the rule — to strengthen its public health protections and to clarify its implementation requirements to make it more effective and more readily enforceable,” the authors of the white paper wrote.
As it develops revisions to the LCR, the EPA has outlined several guiding principles. To minimize exposure to lead in drinking water, it wants the 68,000 drinking water systems that it governs to take proactive measures to remove sources of lead and educate consumers about potential health effects and ways they can reduce their own exposure. To make the LCR more clear and enforceable, the agency hopes to make the rule more prescriptive with less room for discretion by individuals. The EPA wants to become more transparent, informing consumers when they are served by lead service lines and more rapidly test tap samples and water quality. Addressing the fact that lead contamination seems to disproportionately affect low-income communities, the EPA hopes to build environmental justice into a revised LCR and prioritize the protection of infants and children. Finally, a revised rule will integrate reduction of lead exposure from paint, dust, and soil, as well as drinking water.
“The paper provides examples of regulatory options that EPA is evaluating and highlights key challenges, opportunities, and analytical issues presented by these options,” the agency said. “Options include proactive full lead service line replacement, improving optimal corrosion control treatment requirements, consideration of a health-based benchmark, the potential role of point-of-use filters, clarifications or strengthening of tap sampling requirements, increased transparency, and public education requirements.”
The EPA plans to keep working with stakeholders, like the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, to develop a new rule and open it up to public comment. Whatever the fine print ends up being, the agency has an idea of how the above elements will come together to improve the LCR.
“EPA expects that proposed revisions to the LCR will include both technology-driven and health-based elements that focus on proactive, preventative actions to avoid high lead levels and health risks,” the agency said. “In addition, we expect to propose robust and ongoing communication and information sharing with consumers that will foster actions by consumers to reduce risks. The potential elements under consideration are interconnected components that together will address the challenges with the current rule and improve public health protection in the revised rule.”
It appears that a revised LCR could be burdensome to water systems asked to adhere to it, but that it may ultimately putan end to what has become today’s greatest water contamination challenge.