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The administration has plans for further updates aimed at getting lead service lines replaced nationwide.
The Biden administration said Thursday it would start enforcing new rules drafted by the Trump administration designed to limit the amount of toxic copper and lead in drinking water, while at the same time promising even stricter standards geared towards replacing all lead service lines in the country.
Vice President Kamala Harris and other administration officials announced the decision. The administration had put the Trump-era revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule on hold for nearly a year, even though the rule had not been updated in three decades. Officials in the Trump administration adopted the long-awaited updates a year ago, as Trump’s time in office came to an end. Environmental groups and health advocates railed against the changes and even sued to block them, because the rules did not require lead pipes to be replaced.
“Over the past year, I have visited with and heard from communities in Chicago, Flint, Jackson, and many other areas that are impacted by lead in drinking water,” said Michael S. Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, in a statement. “These conversations have underscored the need to proactively remove lead service lines, especially in low-income communities. The science on lead is settled—there is no safe level of exposure, and it is time to remove this risk to support thriving people and vibrant communities.”
Getting rid of lead pipes became a popular political goal, after authorities found high levels of lead contamination in the drinking water for residents of Flint, Michigan, in 2014. The contamination came after city officials switched the source of drinking water there but did not treat it appropriately at the water treatment plant. Lead is a neurotoxin that causes many health problems, but it is especially harmful for the development of children.
While Flint has replaced most of its lead service lines, other communities have faced issues of lead in their drinking water, too. Most recently, the city of Benton Harbor in western Michigan has advised residents to use bottled water because of the presence of lead in tap water.
Moving the Process Along
President Biden has repeatedly called for replacing all the lead drinking water pipes in the country.
But the Biden administration concluded that the Trump-era rules would at least move along the process. The rules require water utilities to identify and inventory all the lead pipes in their systems. Those inventories, the EPA said Thursday, “are necessary to achieve 100% removal of lead service lines.” The October 2024 deadline for those inventories would remain the same.
In the meantime, though, the EPA says it will work on another round of updates to speed up the process of replacing lead service lines.
“Replacing all lead service lines is an important public health goal,” the agency said in a statement. “EPA intends to propose requirements that, along with other actions, would replace all lead service lines as quickly as feasible. EPA’s proposal will fully consider the agency’s statutory authority and required analyses, including an economic analysis.”
The Biden administration’s updates would also address new lead-testing protocols and thresholds, as well as ensuring that historically underserved communities received adequate resources for reducing lead exposure.
Also on Thursday, the administration announced that it would be doling out $2.9 billion in aid to water systems for lead pipe removal, the first of five installments from the recently passed federal infrastructure bill. The Treasury Department also clarified that states and cities could use federal aid they received in coronavirus relief earlier this year for lead service line replacements.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.