Biden aims to remove all lead pipes. Will EPA follow suit?

President Biden has made a push to make the country’s leading pipelines a cornerstone of his infrastructure agenda, but a requirement to achieve that is clearly MIA in the current EPA ruling.

Proponents hope that will change.

“If the EPA does not require this, our concern is that, frankly, providers have had decades to replace their senior service lines or even identify their senior service lines,” said Erik Olson, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health program. “The ball has been in their places for decades and they haven’t done what it took.”

The EPA has been discussing ways to revise its lead and copper rule with city and state officials, environmental groups, industry officials, and health workers at meetings across the country in locations like Newark, NJ and Memphis, Tennessee for months. In March, EPA Administrator Michael Regan delayed the implementation of the Trump-era rule and called for greater coverage to include vulnerable populations (E&E News PM, March 10).

Lead, a powerful neurotoxin, enters drinking water through millions of lead pipes meandering across the country and can cause negative health effects – including behavioral and learning difficulties, lower IQ, hyperactivity and slowed growth – disproportionately to children.

The Trump administration finalized a rule last year and led the ordinance – the first update to state drinking water standards in nearly 30 years – to close loopholes, test drinking water for the first time in daycare centers and schools, and expand service line inventories. The rule would also ensure that entire, not just partial, leading service lines are replaced (Greenwire, December 22, 2020).

However, critics have argued that the Trump administration’s rule does not include a requirement to remove all lead lines and that the testing requirements are too weak and may not include lead in schools. They also warned that the ordinance more than doubles the time water utilities have to replace lead pipes.

Olson said Biden will be the first president to call for all senior service lines to be removed, a move he welcomed. But he said that this vow must now be fulfilled with regulatory and financial support.

EPA’s chief water officer, Radhika Fox, said in an interview earlier this month that she was “optimistic and hopeful” that in the face of Biden’s call for the removal of all lead lines and a legislative package that goes through Congress, the nation will save US $ 15 billion – Includes dollars to get the job done.

Fox didn’t give a timeline for what’s next, however, and said it didn’t want to anticipate the agency’s ongoing review of whether to revise or maintain the Trump-era lead and copper rule. Biden’s EPA will make a decision on next steps before the rule goes into effect in December.

Fox also acknowledged claims that the rule require the removal of all senior service lines, a point that it believes has been consistently highlighted during EPA roundtables and meetings.

“The number one thing that everyone has been talking about is Lead Service Line Exchange,” she said. “I would say the top recommendation was the need to completely replace the service line; It’s a huge public health issue for communities across the country and it has been the biggest topic of discussion. “

Concerns about the price tag

As the EPA plans its next move, the focus is on finding the lead pipelines and the final price to remove them.

Some House Democrats, trade unions and environmental groups have publicly called for $ 45 billion to remove more than 10 million senior service lines in the United States. They released a report last month that found that it was estimated that the EPA could cost up to $ 12,300 to replace a single lead service line, while the average cost is around $ 4,700 – which is Biden’s initial cost Price of $ 45 billion (E&E Daily, Aug. 4). ).

Currently, the infrastructure package would provide a dedicated $ 15 billion to remove senior service lines, which is below the $ 45 billion Biden originally requested in his initial infrastructure pitch and establishment plans. While the White House has said water utilities can also tap $ 11 billion as general funding for drinking water projects, proponents have pushed back, noting that that pot of money is also needed for projects like replacing water pipes and filtering out emerging pollutants.

Timothy Male, executive director of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, said in an interview that he would like the rule to include an effort to reduce the cost of replacing lead service lines, adding that the White House had round tables Plumbers and large construction sites could manage businesses and city officials who have made strides in removing lead service lines.

Fox said cost was the focus of EPA round tables. She said attendees discussed, for example, reducing costs by removing lead lines in whole neighborhoods or blocks – as opposed to individual streets – to achieve economies of scale, but noted that doing so would require heavy participation from homeowners.

When asked if she was concerned about the $ 15 billion infrastructure package, Fox said that if it went through both chambers and a bill were signed, that amount would be the largest single investment and a “huge down payment.” were.

Delay or careful pedaling?

Another area of ​​concern is the time it will take the EPA to draft or revise regulations for lead and copper and how this could affect efforts to map the country’s leading service lines.

Should Biden’s EPA decide to propose major changes, it would have to do so by releasing a new draft rule in December to change existing regulations, sources said, a process that could take months or more and could include a public comment deadline and cost estimates.

The EPA could also allow certain parts of the rule to be pushed forward if the agency finds they are protecting public health while replacing other provisions, said Betsy Southerland, a former EPA Office of Water employee.

Male of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center wrote in an online post that the current rule has “serious flaws,” including a requirement not to remove all leading service lines. However, Male also said the delay in implementing the Trump-era rule was a mistake as it contained some good provisions, including requiring utility companies to map all lead water pipes within three years.

If the EPA hadn’t delayed the rule, all water utilities would have had to inventory and map lead pipes by January 2024, with a year in Biden’s first term. Instead, the deadline has now been postponed to a month before the end of Biden’s term in office.

“This delay not only complicates the work involved in replacing lead pipes, but it may also weaken the vital momentum of that unique moment when we have a president who has made a personal commitment to remove lead water pipes,” wrote Male.

When asked about the delay, Fox stressed that the lead and copper rule was one of the EPA’s key public health rules, and said the agency had decided to do a deeper review in view of the multitude of outstanding concerns.

“We have carefully considered our decision to extend the effective date of the lead and copper rule based on the decisions that lie ahead,” she said. “There were so many concerns that the rule that was passed was not sufficiently protective that we felt we need to do the analysis and listen.”

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