The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released a proposed rule that would require replacement of all lead service lines for drinking water in the U.S.—more than nine million—within the next decade. The proposal, announced Nov. 30, would also lower the lead action level for drinking water systems from 15 micrograms per liter to 10 micrograms per liter and require improvements in the way utilities sample for the presence of lead in tap water. 

The Lead and Copper Rule Improvements (LCRI) regulation strengthens Trump administration revisions to the original 1991 Lead and Copper Rule. Systems that detect lead levels above 10 mcg/l would be required to implement additional treatment or corrosion control. 

The rule would also provide funding to enable communities to accelerate the pace of lead service-line replacements. The $15 billion in 2021’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) tasked specifically for lead service-line replacements, plus the law’s addition of $11.7 billion to the drinking-water state revolving-fund (SRF) program, would help communities comply with the more stringent requirements, EPA officials said on a Nov. 30 press call. 

“The science is clear. There’s absolutely no safe level of lead exposure, especially in children,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “This is a public health concern that unfortunately spanned generations and an issue that has disproportionately impacted low-income and minority communities.” 

The proposed rule would require the annual replacement of at least 10% of lead service lines in communities, though states could impose a more accelerated pace for communities capable of it. For example, Newark, N.J., removed all of its 23,000 lead service lines in less than three years, said Kareem Adeem, the city's director of water and sewer utilities.

EPA will accept comment on the proposal for 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register and hold a virtual public hearing on January 16, 2024 for public input.

Rule Costs and Implementation

The Lead and Copper Rule Improvements (LCRI) proposal, if enacted, would cost anywhere from $2 billion to $3.6 billion annually, EPA says. But the public health benefits—ranging from nearly $10 billion to $34 billion per year, would far outweigh those costs, noted Radhika Fox, the agency’s assistant administrator for water. Additionally, IIJA funding for lead service-line replacements is expected to create more than 200,000 jobs and spur economic development, she said.

In their statements after the proposed rule was made public, drinking and municipal water groups were quick to point out their support for removing 100% of lead service lines in the U.S. But they cautioned that the funding from IIJA is just a first step for what is needed for water utilities to comply. The average cost to replace a single service line is approximately $10,000, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA). With more than 9.2-million lead service lines nationwide, the total cost could exceed $90 billion. 

“Cost will be a significant challenge in replacing all lead service lines, especially when considered alongside competing priorities such as PFAS removal, cybersecurity upgrades and other critical infrastructure investments,” said David LaFrance, AWWA's CEO, in a statement. 

The drinking water groups also note that some utilities are facing challenges that make compliance difficult. These include increasing costs, supply chain disruptions, workforce shortages, incomplete or missing building records and lack of access to the private side of the service lines.

Tom Dobbins, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies' CEO, issued a statement calling on EPA “to focus on providing drinking water systems with the resources and tools necessary to achieve this ambitious goal, and working toward eliminating the real barriers that exist for many utilities.” 

But for Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who helped bring to light public health concerns during the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich., the announcement is “a dream come true for pediatricians.” Calling the proposed rule a “game-changer,” she said, “These improvements ensure that in a not-too-distant future there will never be another city and another child poisoned by their [drinking water] pipes.”