A Trump administration proposal to revise the standard for controlling lead levels in drinking water includes what some observers say are modest improvements to the original regulation put in place in 1991. But critics contend that the provisions fall well short of what is needed to protect public health and could expose more people to lead for longer periods of time.

Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the proposed Long-term Lead and Copper Rule on Oct. 10 at an event in Green Bay, Wis. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the proposal “would ensure that more water systems proactively take actions to prevent lead exposure, especially in schools, child care facilities, and the most at-risk communities.”

The proposal keeps the threshold at which utilities must take action to remove lead pipes at 15 parts per billion (ppb) and for the first time establishes a “trigger” of 10 ppb.

That trigger level would compel water systems to identify actions that they could take to reduce lead levels in drinking water if they exceed the 15 ppd actionable level. According to EPA, the new trigger level “will enable systems to react more quickly should they exceed the 15 ppb action level in the future.”

Moreover, under the proposed rule, homeowners must be notified within 24 hours if a sample collected in their home is above 15 ppb. Water utility companies would be required to  test a percentage of schools and day-care centers in their systems each year.

Additionally, the proposal would prohibit partial-line replacements, which are generally thought to be ineffective.

The American Water Works Association says that the proposal is a “step forward.” David LaFrance, AWWA's chief executive officer, says that his group likes the proposal’s requirement that water systems develop and update their inventories of lead service line.

“This is a necessary first step in developing plans to remove lead service lines and helping households and community leaders understand the scope of the lead challenge,” LaFrance said in a statement.

But critics point out that the proposal also significantly stretches out the time utilities would have to replace lead service lines once they reach 15 ppb.  At present, a water system with lead above 15 ppb must replace 7% of its lead service lines each year for as long as they exceed 15 ppb.

That would take about 13 years, according to attorneys with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Under the new proposal, utilities would only have to remove 3% of their lead service lines for as long as they exceed 15 ppb. That would push the time for total service-line replacement to 33 years, from 13.

Dimple Chaudhary, an NRDC senior attorney, said during an Oct. 10 conference call with reporters that EPA’s approach to lead service line replacement is “wrong-headed. A water utility does not need 33 years to place its lead service lines.”

Chaudhary, lead counsel in litigation regarding the Flint, Mich., drinking-water crisis, said the successful settlement of that litigation resulted in a plan to replace the lead service lines in three years, and is on track to do so.

NRDC attorneys on the call suggested they will challenge the rule in court, saying that a provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act prohibits weakening any drinking-water standards already in place.

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who helped bring the Flint crisis in to light and has long pushed for better enforcement of the existing Lead and Copper Rule, said in an email to ENR: “The new rule has both improvements and rollbacks, but if enforced, it could provide consumers most of the protections we were promised 30 years ago.”

Comments on the proposal are due 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register.

See related ENR story on new law providing more help to state drinking-water programs here.