Cities must replace lead water pipes within 10 years under EPA proposal
Most US cities would have to replace their lead water pipes within 10 years under strict new rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, as the Biden Administration moves to reduce lead in drinking water and prevent public health crises like the ones in Flint, Michigan and Washington, DC.
Millions of Americans consume drinking water from lead pipes, and the agency says tighter standards will improve IQ scores in children and reduce high blood pressure and heart disease in adults.
It is the strongest overhaul of lead rules in more than three decades, and will cost billions of dollars. Pulling it off will require overcoming enormous practical and financial obstacles.
The Biden Administration has previously said it wants all of the nation’s roughly 9 million lead pipes to be removed, and rapidly.
Lead pipes connect water mains in the street to homes, and are typically the biggest source of lead in drinking water. They are most common in older, industrial parts of the country.
Lead crises have hit poorer, majority-Black cities like Flint especially hard. “We’re trying to right a long-standing wrong here,” said Radhika Fox, head of the EPA Office of Water.
The proposal would for the first time require utilities to replace lead pipes even if their lead levels aren’t too high. Most cities have not been forced to replace their lead pipes, and many don’t even know where they are.
There are some exceptions to the 10-year replacement deadline. A few cities like Chicago with lots of lead pipes may get longer. Water utilities with dense networks of lead pipes – as many as 2000 of them – could also get more than 10 years.
The EPA enacted the first comprehensive lead in drinking water regulations in 1991. Those have significantly helped to reduce lead levels, but experts have said they left loopholes that keep lead levels too high, and that lax enforcement allows cities to ignore the problem.
The American Water Works Association, an industry group, said it supported the pipe replacement goals, but there would be significant challenges.
Costs were going up, it was hard to secure homeowner permission to do pipe replacement work, and other contaminants like harmful “forever chemicals” called PFAS would also vie for financial resources and time, the group said.