State and Federal Efforts to Address Lead in Drinking Water

12/30/2021

Lead pipes.

Introduction

Found naturally in the earth’s crust, lead is a heavy metal known for its softness, malleability, low melting point and resistance to corrosion. Before it was known to be toxic, lead was widely used across a variety of industries and applications. It was used in gasoline to prevent vehicle engine knock, in solder to seal cans of food, in house paints to make them stronger, and in pipes used to bring water into homes and buildings. Though no longer found in paint or gasoline, lead is still found in car batteries, ammunition, weights, roofing materials, radiation protection and in tanks that hold corrosive liquids. Lead also persists in and around older homes, primarily through old paint, fixtures and pipes.

Lead can be ingested, inhaled or absorbed into the body and is stored in blood, bone and tissue. Despite lead’s industrial benefits, lead poisoning is a significant and longstanding public health concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prolonged lead exposure increases risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and reduced fertility. 

While lead poisoning can cause serious harm to adults, the most significant and dangerous outcomes occur in the neurological development of children. According to the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and many others, there is no safe level of lead exposure for children, yet the CDC estimates that nearly 535,000 children between the ages of 1 and 5 years have elevated blood lead levels. 

Efforts by the federal government to ban lead in gasoline, plumbing, solder and food cans, along with aggressive state efforts to control lead hazards in housing have decreased the number of lead-exposed children over time. Despite this, lead-based hazards remain prevalent and continue to harm children who can be exposed through their homes and schools. Water is one of the most common sources of lead in young children, with the EPA estimating that up to 20% of human exposure to lead comes from lead in drinking water, attributable to the nation’s 6 million lead services lines.

Lead Service Lines

Typical Location of a Residential Water Service Line

Lead Service Line
Courtesy: Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative

 

Full lead service line (LSL) replacement involves the elimination of lead in the series of pipes and connections between a water main and the interior plumbing of the home. The lines from the curb stop (the connection between public and private lines) to the home or business are not currently governed by federal regulation, and in the many older homes with an LSL between the property line and the house, the property owner is responsible for maintenance or replacement of the line.

Partial replacement of service lines on the public side is not effective because if a home has an LSL, it is likely the private connections and fixtures inside the home are sources of lead as well. Some utilities, such as DC water, have incentivized full replacement by paying for new lines on the public side if a resident pays for replacement on the private side.

Given lead’s toxicity, every level of government—federal, state and local—is working to eliminate it from water service lines and address the public’s health concerns.

Federal Laws and Regulations

Man drinking water.The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) authorizes the EPA to promulgate regulations to control contaminants in public water supplies, and since its enactment in the mid-1970s the agency has issued drinking water regulations for more than 90 contaminants, including lead.

The EPA published the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) in 1991 using the authorities granted by Congress. It was designed to control lead and copper in drinking water, requiring both corrosion control and public awareness actions if lead or copper concentrations exceeded specified limits. The rule introduced a health standard for lead in public supply drinking water, allowing the EPA to set a maximum limit under the SDWA. The rule created a 15 parts per billion (ppb) action level, replacing the previous standard of 50 ppb, prompting systems at that level to take additional steps to control corrosion, inform the public about steps they should take to protect their health and replace lead service lines under their control. In addition to action levels, the rule established a maximum contaminant level goal of zero for lead in drinking water.

Although the LCR underwent short-term revisions in 2007, the EPA issued the first major update in 30 years to the rule in December 2020—the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCRR). The revisions include several proposed changes to the LCR to improve efforts to remove lead from public water systems:

  • Lead Service Line Inventory:
    • Requires water systems to prepare and update a publicly available inventory of LSLs or absence of LSLs within three years of the final rule publication. The inventory must be updated annually or triennially based on tap sampling frequency. 
  • Find and Fix’: 
    • Requires water systems to locate and replace sources of lead when a sample at a tap site exceeds 15 ppb.
  • New Trigger Level and Corrosion Control Treatment:
    • Requires corrosion control treatment based on tap sampling results and establishes a new trigger level of 10 ppb. See below for more on the new trigger level.
  • Notification Requirements:
    • Requires water systems to notify consumers within 24 hours if a sample collected from their home is above 15 ppb, and requires the water systems to conduct regular outreach to homeowners with LSLs. 
  • Sampling
    • Requires water systems to follow new sampling procedures and adjust sampling sites for lead and copper, to include targeted sampling at schools and child care facilities. 
  • Replacement of Lines
    • Requires water systems to replace water-system-owned portions of the LSL if customers replace their portion of the line within 45 days of notification of the private replacement. 

Notably, the final rule does not change the existing action level of 15 ppb, but instead finalizes a new lead trigger level of 10 ppb. This would require water systems to consult with state regulators to identify actions that would reduce levels in drinking water (e.g., additional planning, monitoring and treatment requirements). If a water system tests above the new 10 ppb trigger level but below the existing 15 ppb action level, it must set an annual goal for replacements and conduct outreach to encourage resident participation in replacement programs. For a more in-depth review of the LCRR, read NCSL’s Info Alert

The effective date of the LCRR was delayed to Dec. 16, 2021, allowing the EPA to gather additional input from communities that have been impacted by lead and seek feedback from national water associations, tribes and tribal communities, and the EPA’s state co-regulators. 

State Action

State legislatures consider many bills each year to mitigate the effects of lead in drinking water and care for those affected, particularly children. In the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions, over 500 bills were introduced. Many focused on lead in schools and child care facilities, particularly testing and notification. Lead service line replacement, public education, real estate disclosure, lead-based paint abatement and financial assistance programs also featured prominently.

Lead Service Line Inventories 

When the Lead and Copper Rule was adopted in 1991, there were an estimated 10.2 million LSLs in the country. A 2016 survey from the American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimated 6.1 million LSLs in over 11,200 community water systems, mostly in the Midwest and in homes built prior to 1960. The EPA estimates 6 million to 10 million based on several estimates, including the AWWA survey.

There is no national database of all homes with LSLs, although some individual water utilities have mapped LSLs within their networks. For example, the Ohio cities of Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati maintain online databases to let customers know the locations and the extent of LSLs. The Cincinnati water utility provides free lead-test kits to their customers, as do several other utilities.

A growing number of states have also enacted legislation requiring an inventory of LSLs. Lawmakers in Illinois (HB 3739) and New Jersey (AB 5343) approved comprehensive inventories in 2021. Both bills require community water systems to catalog all lead service lines and suspected lead service lines and adopt replacement plans. The Illinois bill also contains provisions related to notification, prohibits partial lead service line replacement and creates a separate low-income water assistance program. California’s 7,500 public water systems recently completed a lead service line inventory initiated in 2016 with passage of Senate Bill 1398

Maine lawmakers chose to focus on state-owned buildings, directing the Department of General Services to identify the presence of not only lead but also asbestos, black mold and other substances harmful to human health (2021 LD 1042). The results of the inventory will be posted on the agency’s website, along with plans to address these hazards.

Lead Service Line Disclosure Requirements 

Many states have incorporated lead plumbing into real estate disclosure laws to help identify and encourage replacement of LSLs in homes, as there is no address-specific federal disclosure requirement for LSLs. 

For example, Virginia’s House Bill 1161 in 2020 required the owner of a residential dwelling, who has actual knowledge of the existence of lead pipes, to provide a written disclosure to a prospective purchaser. New Jersey enhanced its disclosure requirements in 2021 with Senate Bill 829. Property condition disclosure statements must now include a question asking whether the seller is aware of the presence of lead plumbing, including any service lines, piping materials, fixtures and solder. Real estate brokers who communicate the condition of a home to a prospective buyer without obtaining this information from the seller could be liable for providing false or misleading information. 

Lead Testing in Schools and Child Care Facilities 

At least 12 bills were enacted in 2020-21 related to childhood lead poisoning and lead in schools. Examples: 

  • Delaware HB 222 (2021): Requires health care providers to order lead screening of children at 12 and 24 months of age.
  • Maryland HB 636 (2021): Alters the definition of “elevated level of lead” and requires schools to take remedial action if previous tests showed lead levels of 5 ppb to 20 ppb.
  • North Carolina HB 272 (2021): Updates lead hazard threshold for drinking water consumed by children from 15 ppb to 10 ppb.
  • Utah HB 259 (2021): Increases testing and education regarding lead exposure for children.
  • Virginia HB 797 (2020): Requires each school board to submit plans to test and remediate certain potable water sources. Requires parent notification if testing results indicate lead contamination that exceeds 10 ppb.
  • Washington HB 1139 (2021): Sets requirements for lead testing of drinking water outlets in schools with buildings built, or with plumbing replaced, before 2016.

In addition to testing, at least seven states—California, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire and Virginia—require school districts to report elevated levels of lead to parents, and in some cases, the state. 

State

Statute Citation

California

Cal. Education Code §32243

Illinois

Ill. Comp. Stat. ch. 225, §320/35.5

Louisiana

La. Rev. Stat. tit. 30, §§2351.53 to 2351.54

Minnesota

Minn. Stat. §121A.335

Missouri

Mo. Rev. Stat. §701.200

New Hampshire

N.H. Rev. Stat. §485:17-a

Virginia

Va. Code §22.1-135.1

Funding and Finance Resources

Lead service line replacement can be expensive, ranging from $1,200 to $12,300 per line replaced, with an average cost of $4,700. The cost of replacing all of the nation’s lead service lines may be as much as $47 billion, although independent groups place that number higher. 

The actual cost of replacement can vary significantly and reflects several factors, including the length of the service line, the technique used to install the new service line and the built environment where the service line is located. Working around trees, walls and driveways can quickly affect the cost of replacement, as can breaking through a basement wall. 

The Minnesota Department of Health completed a study in 2019 estimating the cost to replace all 100,000 lead service lines in the state at just over $4 billion, with benefits to public health and the economy reaching more than $8 billion.

Federal Funding and Financing 

The federal government has several funding and financing programs states and local governments can use to mitigate lead in drinking water, including but not limited to the funds outlined below: 

Drinking Water State Revolving Funds

The Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund (DWSRF) was established in 1996 and is a financial assistance program to help water systems and states achieve the health protection objectives of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA awards grants to states based on a needs assessment and states may use these funds to subsidize replacement costs, provide forgivable loans or provide grants to private homeowners to replace their LSLs. Eligible projects include infrastructure replacement, corrosion control, lead testing and education, and emergency protocol. For example, New Jersey uses the DWSRF to distribute $30 million to utilities for property-owner loans to replace LSLs. 

In 2019, the Water Infrastructure Fund Transfer Act addressed a lack of funding for LSL replacement projects by allowing a one-time transfer from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) to the DWSRF for lead-related DWSRF-eligible projects. The transfer had to be completed by October 2020 and states had to develop plans for these funds before the transfer could take place, so in most states projects for this funding have already been selected. Nine states took advantage of the transfer, including Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin. 

Community Development Block Grant

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development administers the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, providing communities with resources to address a wide range of development needs, which could include LSL replacement. The goal of the program is to ensure affordable housing and provide services to vulnerable communities, and not necessarily for the replacement of LSLs. However, a community may include the replacement of LSLs as part of the CDBG request as the funds can be used to buy, construct or repair public facilities such as water and sewer systems. For example, Florida lists the CDBG program as a funding source with $18 million to $26 million available annually for community water projects.

Assistance for Small and Disadvantaged Communities Grants

The Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act (WIIN) created a program to assist public water systems in underserved, small and disadvantaged communities in complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Eligible projects include investments for compliance with SDWA, which can include LSL replacement to meet lead standards for disadvantaged communities that have a contaminated public water system. Arizona, Massachusetts and Virginia have used funds from this project to address lead issues in small communities. 

Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act

Established in 2014, the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act is a federal credit program for eligible water and wastewater infrastructure projects. Any project, including LSL replacement, eligible under the CWSRF or the DWSRF is also eligible under the WIFIA. 

Lead Testing in School and Child Care Program Drinking Water Grant

Authorized under the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, the EPA’s Lead Testing in School and Child Care Program Drinking Water Grant creates a voluntary program to assist with testing for lead in drinking water at schools and child care programs. The funding can be used to carry out testing in accordance with the EPA’s 3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools and Child Care Facilities guidance or other applicable state regulations, or with guidance that is equal to or more stringent than the federal lead-reduction guidance. A minimum of 6.4% of the funding available via the grant is distributed to tribal education agencies to conduct testing.  

Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

In addition to the funding mechanisms described above, the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) authorizes an additional $11.7 billion for traditional DWSRF uses and another $15 billion dedicated solely to LSL replacement. If a state does not have a use for the lead allocation, it is redistributed to other states (using the SRF formula) for lead pipe replacement. Corrosion control treatments are not eligible for funding via this new portion of funding. Notably, states are not required to provide a cost share, and 49% of the funding will be administered as grants and completely forgivable loans.

The IIJA also extended the EPA’s Reducing Lead in Drinking Water Grant, created under WIIN, to support the replacement of lead water lines and increased its annual authorization by $40 million to $100 million for five years. It also authorized over $200 million over five years to address lead contamination in schools via testing and remediation. For more information on IIJA and implementation guidance as it is released, please visit NCSL’s webpage

State and Local Funding and Financing 

Dedicated State or Community Funds

Several states have a dedicated fund to contribute to LSL replacement. For example, Virginia’s Lead Elimination Assistance Program (LEAP) offers grant funding to localities and waterworks to create and maintain LSL replacement programs. The program dispenses up to $5,000 for each complete service line replaced, with a total budget of $2 million per funding application cycle. Single-family homes, apartments, schools and daycare centers are all eligible.

Wisconsin established the Private LSL Replacement Program in 2020, aiming to provide $63 million in funding for replacement at homes, schools and day care facilities. The program will cover construction and engineering costs, with priority given to municipal populations under the poverty level. 

In October 2020, Michigan’s governor announced the MI Clean Water Plan, a $500 million water infrastructure investment that set aside over $102 million for LSL replacement in disadvantaged communities. In September 2021, the governor proposed a $200 million expansion for additional LSL replacement. 

Rate Increases

Water utilities can charge the ratepayer for the cost of replacement. However, in many states, utilities are limited or prohibited from charging for activities performed for a private interest, such as replacing LSLs to private homes. Indiana responded by enacting House Bill 1519 in 2017, allowing the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to approve proposals that fold the cost of LSL replacement into water rates. In Pennsylvania House Bill 674, also from 2017, allows municipal authorities to use public resources to replace or remediate private water and sewer laterals if the municipality determines the work “will benefit the public health, the public water system or the public sewer system,” which can include LSLs. Wisconsin Senate Bill 48, from 2018, allows a municipality to choose whether to provide a grant or loan to replace a lead service line and request to raise water rates from the state Public Service Commission.

Additional Resources