By Kristen Hildreth
Over the past 18 months, America’s drinking water has garnered significant national attention as various Safe Drinking Water Act violations, primarily from lead contamination, have gained prominent media exposure.
These violations first came to light in Flint, Mich., where a lack of proper water treatment and shortcomings in regulation caused tests to “show ‘serious’ levels of lead in [the] city’s water,” with more than 4 percent of tested children under the age of 5 having elevated blood lead levels.
The exposure led to the resignation of public officials, an emergency order from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and a declaration of a state of emergency for the city from both Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder and President Obama.
Following Flint, additional drinking water crises cropped up across the nation from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia and beyond. To protect public health and prevent future lead-related drinking water crises, the federal government began ramping up efforts to strengthen regulations and produce legislation to protect public health and strengthen the nation’s drinking water infrastructure.
On Oct. 26, the EPA published a white paper outlining potential revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) initially enacted in 1991. The LCR was designed to control lead and copper in drinking water, requiring corrosion control actions and public awareness if lead or copper concentrations exceed the specified action levels. While the number of large drinking water systems across the nation exceeding a mandatory action level have decreased by more than 90 percent since the initial implementation of the rule, EPA noted in its white paper that “the regulation and its implementation are in urgent need of an overhaul.”
The suggested revisions would update the LCR to further strengthen corrosion control treatment in 68,000 drinking water systems nationwide, ensure public education about the health effects of both lead and copper, and actions that can be taken to reduce exposure. Key revisions under consideration include requiring proactive lead service line replacements, improved corrosion control treatment, strengthening sampling requirements, increased transparency and information sharing, and increased public education outreach.
These same possible revisions, however, present potential challenges. Specifically, EPA noted that proactive replacement of lead service lines could cost between $2,500 and $8,700 per line, a cost that is shared by the water utility and the homeowner and has the potential to cost more than $80 billion nationally. In addition, legal challenges may also arise concerning EPA’s authority to mandate replacement of privately owned portions of lines and who would be responsible for the costs of such replacements.
While EPA accepts that challenges may arise with possible revisions, the agency notes it is “critical” that it revises the LCR to strengthen the rule and protect public health. EPA is accepting comments on its white paper as it develops a proposed rulemaking on the LCR, which is expected in 2017.
EPA also announced the release of its Environmental Justice 2020 Action Agenda, which reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to not only eliminating disparities in childhood lead levels, but also ensuring all citizens served by community water systems have drinking water that meets applicable health based standards.
Apart from EPA, Congress has introduced legislation aimed at further protecting public health and recognizing the lead crisis America faces. In February, the House voted 416-2, to pass the Safe Drinking Water Act Improved Compliance Awareness Act, requiring the EPA to notify the public within 15 days of unsafe lead levels in a community’s drinking water—ensuring the public remained informed. The Senate included the measure in its Water Resources Development Act of 2016, which also contains a $220 million aid package for lead-afflicted communities.
The issue of ensuring safe drinking water in the U.S. continues to receive attention from the administration and Congress with a shared goal of preventing future crises, improving the nation’s drinking water infrastructure and protecting public health. While this blog covers the efforts by the federal government, states across the nation are also ramping up efforts to ensure safe drinking water. For more information on what states are doing, please contact Doug Farquhar or Kim Tyrrell. For more information on the actions taken by the federal government to address the issue of lead in America’s drinking water, please contact Kristen Hildreth.
Kristen Hildreth is a policy associate with NCSL's National Resources and Infrastructure Committee.