Trump EPA finalizes lead contamination rule

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday finalized the first update of regulations of lead in drinking water in 30 years, a move it said strengthens federal rules but that environmental critics say is a missed opportunity to carry out the kind of regulatory overhaul needed to ensure safety.

FILE PHOTO: The top of the Flint Water Plant tower is seen in Flint, Michigan, February 7, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the final rule at a virtual news conference alongside the mayor of Flint, Michigan, Sheldon Neeley, saying it strengthened “every aspect” of the existing regulation and would protect children and communities from lead exposure.

“For the first time in nearly 30 years, this action incorporates best practices and strengthens every aspect of the rule, including closing loopholes, accelerating the real world pace of lead service line replacement, and ensuring that lead pipes will be replaced in their entirety,” Wheeler said in a statement.

The update of the lead and copper rule was a response to the 2014 Flint water crisis, when the predominantly Black city of 100,000 switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to save money, unleashing water contamination that led to elevated lead levels in children’s blood.

The rule would require utilities to notify customers of high lead concentrations within 24 hours of detection – down from 30 days – and require testing for lead in elementary schools and childcare facilities for the first time. It would also require water systems to identify and notify the public about the locations of lead service lines.

But environmental groups criticized the final rule for failing to speed up the replacement of lead pipes, a requirement they say is crucial to protect communities’ drinking water.

The final rule says that in communities where high lead levels are found, utilities must replace 3% of lead water lines annually compared with the previous requirement of 7%.

Wheeler said in a press conference that even though the previous requirement of 7% was higher, it was “riddled with loopholes” and only 1% of lead service lines were replaced. He called the new level more realistic.

“If you have the chance to make the first major revisions in 30 years, you need to really solve this problem. The EPA should speed up replacements of lead pipes, not slow them down,” said Suzanne Novak, an attorney for Earthjustice.

Erik Olson with the Natural Resources Defense Council said the rule will keep old lead pipes in the ground for decades and that 6 to 10 million lead pipes remain buried across the country.

Flint Mayor Neeley said the rule was not “perfection, but it is progress.”

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