WASHINGTON – The Trump administration on Thursday proposed new regulations on lead and copper in drinking water, updating a 30-year-old rule that may have contributed to the lead-tainted water crisis in Flint, Mich., that began in 2015.
The draft plan, announced by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler at a news conference in Green Bay, Wis., would include some provisions designed to strengthen oversight of lead in drinking water. But it skips a pricey safety proposal advocated by public health groups and water utilities: the immediate replacement of 6 million lead pipes that connect homes to main water pipes. The proposed new rule would also more than double the amount of time allotted to replace lead pipes in water systems that contain high levels of lead.
Wheeler touted the new regulations as a step forward in protecting water supplies.
"The water sector has known for years and years that the regulations governing lead and copper in our water need to be improved, but administration after administration has failed to get it done," said Wheeler, noting that the standards were last updated in 1991.
The new proposal would also include new requirements that schools and day care centers be tested for lead, and if elevated lead levels are found, customers would have to be told within 24 hours, not the current standard of 30 days. It would require water utilities to conduct inventories of their lead service pipes and publicly report their locations.
Environmental activists said those moves forward would not make up for weakened standards in other areas.
The slower timetable for the replacement of lead pipes is a "huge weakening change that will swallow up the few small improvements in the proposal," wrote Erik Olson, an expert in drinking water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, in an e-mail.
The new rule proposes changing a key element of the current rules that requires that a water system that is found to contain lead levels higher than 15 parts per billion must replace 7% of its lead service lines each year for as long as the lead levels exceed that measurement. The new proposal would instead require water systems with those lead levels to replace 3% of lead service lines each year.
Olson's group estimated that the loosening of standards could extend the length of time needed to replace dangerous lead water pipes from 13 years to 33 years.
"It means that another generation of American kids will be exposed to dangerous levels of lead from their drinking water," he said.