EPA Expects Long Lead Time for Lead, Copper Rule

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By Michael J. Bologna

June 20 — While revising the lead-and-copper rule remains an urgent priority for the Environmental Protection Agency, a senior agency official June 20 assured municipal water system operators they would have significant lead time to implement the rule.

Eric Burneson, director of the standards and risk management division of the EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, said the current trajectory of the rulemaking project suggests an implementation gap of at least three years for system operators. The gap reflects the processes of drafting and issuing a proposed rule, conducting a public comment process, and drafting and issuing a final rule with implementation deadlines.

“So we have a number of years between when we actually make these regulations and you in the regulated community will have to implement them,” Burneson told water professionals attending the American Water Works Association's annual conference in Chicago.

Burneson reiterated the EPA's previously stated commitment to issue a proposed lead and copper rule in 2017. He noted that the proposed rule would reflect national issues brought to light by the Flint, Mich., lead crisis, including a reassessment of the sampling regime under the rule, lead service line replacement requirements and risk communication techniques.

Learning From Flint

In drafting the rule, Burneson said the EPA would draw on recommendations from the National Drinking Water Advisory Council and the agency's experience in Flint.

“We are going to be looking at those recommendations and recommendations we’ve received from other stakeholders,” he said. “We are going to build on the national experiences we had implementing the rule, and we are going to learn from our experiences with Flint.”

Burneson added that the agency would issue regulations under Section 1417 of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) on lead free plumbing by the end of the year.

The regulations respond to a 2014 revision to the act that established the definition for “lead free” as a weighted average of 0.25 percent lead calculated across the wetted surfaces of a pipe, pipe fitting, plumbing fitting, and fixture and 0.2 percent lead for solder and flux.

PFOS, PFOA

On a different drinking water theme, Burneson defended the EPA's recent health advisories establishing voluntary benchmarks designed to guide local water systems determining safe concentration levels of certain highly fluorinated chemicals in drinking water.

On May 19, the EPA set the same benchmark—0.07 microgram per liter or 70 parts per trillion—in its two lifetime drinking water health advisories on perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

The EPA said individual or combined exposure to the chemicals could trigger negative health effects including cancer. The two chemical compounds were widely used in consumer products such as carpeting, giving them water- or stain-resistant qualities.

A water system professional from Colorado questioned the EPA's rationale for issuing the health advisories, accusing the agency of setting off a “media nightmare” for water system operators. The official said most of the country had no knowledge of the substances and little warning from the EPA that such public health guidance would be released. He was skeptical of any health benefits from expensive water system modifications targeting PFOS and PFOA.

Burneson conceded the EPA could have done more to notify communities of its guidance statement. At the same time, he said announcements dealing with “emerging contaminants” have proved a particular challenge to the agency.

“We are looking for opportunities to learn how to lead and improve the way we've done things,” he said. “We all appreciate that emerging contaminants present a particular challenge. We call them emerging contaminants because the science is constantly changing. So one of the things we struggle with is getting the science out there in a way that is useful and informative to people trying to make decisions in a timely and effective manner.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael J. Bologna in Chicago at mbologna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com