EPA to Reconsider Stronger Rules for Lead in Drinking Water

Agency asks court to allow revisions and new rulemaking for the Lead and Copper Rule


Erin Fitzgerald, efitzgerald@earthjustice.org

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filed a court motion saying it will reassess revisions it made to the Lead and Copper Rule during the Trump administration, promising key improvements to the rule. The Lead and Copper rule, or LCR, regulates lead in drinking water. The EPA is asking for the remand in response to a challenge brought by Earthjustice, on behalf of civil rights and environmental groups. With this action, EPA is looking to move the issue out of the courts.

According to their filing, EPA plans several changes to improve the rule, most importantly, mandating lead service line replacement for all such lines across the country. EPA also plans to consider prioritizing overburdened communities, requiring action from water utilities at lower lead levels than currently required, and it will reconsider provisions that slowed lead service line replacement and allowed some utilities to avoid lead service line replacement altogether. EPA says it will propose a new rule in September 2023.

“For decades the outdated LCR failed to protect families from lead in their drinking water. And the Trump administration’s updates to the rule were not enough to protect communities from lead contaminated water, and indeed, took some steps backwards,” said Suzanne Novak, senior attorney at Earthjustice. “EPA’s commitment to strengthening the LCR is welcome news. Communities bearing the brunt of lead contamination are owed a new rule that is health protective, requires replacement of all lead service lines, and does not settle for modest tweaks. We look forward to the Biden administration issuing a stronger rule.”

Even in small amounts, lead can cause irreversible brain damage in children, miscarriage, stillbirth, and cardiovascular disease. There are still as many as 10 million lead service lines in the country, and researchers estimate that these lead pipes deliver water to as many as 22 million people.

Communities of color and low-income families face disproportionate exposure to lead in water because they are more likely to live in older homes with lead service lines. Conservative estimates indicate that half a million children under the age of six have elevated lead levels in their blood. Further, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 11.2% of Black children and 4% of Mexican-American children are poisoned by lead. There is no safe level of lead exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2020, EPA released its updated — but flawed — LCR rule. It took no steps towards eliminating all lead service lines — indeed it dramatically slowed down the rate at which lead pipes were required to be replaced. It also allowed small public water systems that used to be required to replace lead service lines, to avoid replacing them altogether, even if those systems continually exceed the so-called lead action level. Earthjustice sued soon after. There were additional lawsuits filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, and 10 attorneys general from nine states, and the District of Columbia.

Quotes from our Clients:

“Now is the time for the EPA to break the cycle of lead contamination once and for all. Too many generations of children in our communities have been poisoned by lead,” said Queen Zakia Shabazz, founder and executive director of United Parents Against Lead & Other Environmental Hazards (UPAL) a nonprofit based in Richmond, Virginia. “There is no safe level of exposure to lead and our families must be afforded the protections we have long deserved. UPAL looks forward to working with the agency to make sure every child is protected.”

“Newburgh Clean Water Project applauds the EPA for working to bring inclusive, 21st century solutions to a very old problem — contamination of water from lead,” said Deborah Brown, Newburgh Clean Water Project Steering Committee member. “We are encouraged to learn that the EPA is listening to community concerns over exposure to a long-known contaminant and will hopefully act to solve this problem once and for all, and protect all who drink water in the U.S., no matter what zip code they live in, no matter their income level or political influence level, by making sure their water is lead-free.”

“The NAACP believes that every person in this country is entitled to clean, quality, drinking water,” said General Counsel for the NAACP, Janette McCarthy Wallace. “We are pleased that the EPA is requesting remand of all issues raised in this suit. This signifies the agency’s recognition that the petitioners raised legitimate concerns about the revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule put in place by the last presidential administration.”

“We are encouraged to see the EPA taking action today. Lead in water is still a major problem for families and their children all over the country and we are looking forward to more protective lead policies informed by science,” said Sonya Lunder, senior toxics policy advisor at the Sierra Club. “If this EPA is serious about stopping children from drinking lead-tainted water, mandating complete replacement of lead service lines in a promising start.”

“This is welcome news: EPA’s commendable decision to no longer defend its weak lead in tap water rule is what health experts and affected communities across the country have been urging the agency to do. The health of millions of people, especially our kids, is threatened by lead whenever they turn on their taps. Safe drinking water is a basic human right, so EPA must quickly tackle the lead contamination crisis by setting a much stronger lead rule and ensuring that all lead water pipes are pulled out of the ground in the next decade,” said Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director for Health at NRDC.

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