Rep. Kildee pushes lead water rule reforms

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

A new bill in Congress would require the Environmental Protection Agency to revise federal rules to lower the level of lead contamination considered acceptable in drinking water and revise the permissible techniques for lead testing in water.

Prompted by the ongoing public health crisis in Flint, the legislation also calls for the disclosure of more information to the public about the safety of drinking water.

The bill, introduced by Flint Township Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, would require the EPA to update its Lead and Copper Rule within nine months. The regulations have not had a major overhaul since 1991. The most recent revisions were due in 2013, but the EPA has not delivered them.

“Due to many deficiencies in the Lead and Copper rule, Michigan regulators were able to distort and cover up testing results that would have alerted Flint residents of issues in their drinking water,” Kildee said in a statement.

“It has been 25 years since the lead and copper rule has seen a major revision. I have worked with scientists and drinking water policy experts to align the Lead and Copper rule with modern science.”

Part of the problem with the rules are vagueness. Michigan environmental officials argued the wording of the rule allowed them to take water from the Flint River and run it through the city’s treatment plant for 18 months without adding corrosion controls. Without the proper treatment, lead leached from aging service lines into the water supply and resulted in elevated lead levels in hundreds of Flint children’s blood streams.

State officials also said the Lead and Copper Rule permitted them to await two six-month periods of water samples before instituting corrosion controls — orthophosphates that generate a protective coating in the pipes. EPA officials essentially admitted to the lack of clarity last year when they issued a memorandum.

The rule establishes an action level of 0.015 milligrams per liter (or 15 parts per billion) for lead, and 1.3 milligrams per liter for copper.

Kildee’s bill would lower the action level to 10 parts per billion by 2020 and 5 parts per billion by 2026, aligning the EPA’s standard with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulations for bottled water.

Under the legislation, if a building tests above the action level, residents of the building and the population served by the public water system would be notified within two days.

Kildee also wants the EPA to develop a universal testing protocol that would prioritize “high-risk” buildings where children or pregnant women live, and would be conducted once a year, at minimum, at all drinking water outlets in schools and daycare facilities.

The bill requires full replacement of lead service lines. Lead was used in plumbing materials until its use was outlawed in 1986.

Last month, the EPA said lead service line replacement is an option under consideration for remedying lead-contaminated drinking water. But the agency is concerned with the cost, as well as issues related to the shared ownership of service lines between water utilities and property owners.

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