Long-Awaited EPA Lead Pipe Rule Could Be Pushed Back Again

Can EPA Get the Lead Out Amid Deregulatory Fervor? Michigan Sues to Keep Flint on Detroit Water System New Lead Rule a Heavy Lift for EPA Water Regulators

By David Schultz

The long-awaited revamp of the EPA’s lead pipe regulations may be delayed once again, despite an urgency surrounding the issue following the Flint, Mich., lead water contamination crisis that began in 2014.

The top two officials in the agency’s water division could not commit to the current timeline of releasing a draft version of the update this January. The officials spoke Oct. 18 at a conference of state water regulators in Norfolk, Va.

The regulation in question governs how much lead is acceptable in drinking water and what utilities must do if their water tests above the threshold. In the wake of the Flint crisis, during which doctors found a spike in the blood levels of lead in the city’s children, the Environmental Protection Agency initially said it would propose a new regulation this year. After the change in administrations, that date got pushed back to January 2018.

At the Norfolk conference, Michael Shapiro, the acting head of the EPA’s Office of Water, said the agency is not in a position specify a date by which the regulation will be formally unveiled. Lee Forsgren, the office’s deputy assistant administrator and its top Trump appointee, declined to comment to Bloomberg Environment on whether the January timeline is still in effect.

Unfunded Mandate?

Forsgren told Bloomberg Environment the new regulation may not include a requirement that water utilities replace all of their lead pipes, as many in the industry had expected it would.

Forsgren said he had seen estimates that the costs of replacing all lead pipes nationwide would be in the trillions of dollars and that forcing utilities to make this effort could be “an unfunded mandate that would be unprecedented, the likes of which we have never seen.”

Shapiro also said at the conference that the EPA is operating under an agency-wide executive order that requires it to offset the costs of new regulations by repealing existing regulations.

‘All Comes Down to Money’

The Flint crisis was caused when the city switched to a new, more polluted source of drinking water that corroded the city’s pipes, leaching lead into the water. Lead piping is widespread across the country, but most water systems add anti-corrosion chemicals to their drinking water, something officials in Flint failed to do.

Though the chemicals have proved effective at preventing leaching, removing lead pipes altogether is the most effective way at preventing contamination, according to a 2015 report by an external group of drinking water advisors assembled by the EPA. That’s because, even with anti-corrosion chemicals, leaching can occur if a pipe is rattled by vibrations from nearby construction or other disturbances.

Steven Pellei, acting deputy director in the Virginia Department of Health’s drinking water office, said his state is pushing to replace lead piping in anticipation of an eventual change in the EPA’s regulations. He said, given the cost of replacement, it can be difficult to persuade water utilities to purse the change unless it’s not legally mandated.

“It all comes down to money,” Pellei told Bloomberg Environment. “Most [utilities] are saying, ‘We’re in compliance... Why do we need to do anything?’”

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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