EPA seeks advice on ‘dumb and dangerous’ lead rule

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is seeking state advice as it aims to revise the country’s rules on lead and copper in drinking water.

The Trump administration sent a letter to the states on Thursday, asking for their feedback on revising the nation’s Lead and Copper Rules enacted in 1991 to reduce lead exposure through drinking water, according to the letter.

The top environmental regulator’s request comes after Gov. Rick Snyder has called the current federal lead standards “dumb and dangerous” as his administration seeks to replace every underground lead service line in Michigan within 20 years. The Republican leader has called for a tougher state lead standard than the federal standard in the wake of the Flint lead contamination crisis blamed on the inaction of his environmental regulators.

“Despite lead contaminated sites being an environmental threat to our country, EPA has not updated the Lead and Copper Rule in decades,” EPA Director Scott Pruitt said in a statement. “In keeping with our commitment to cooperative federalism, EPA is seeking input from state stakeholders on proposed revisions to properly address lead and ensure communities have access to safe drinking water.”

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has proposed draft rules that would drop the acceptable amount of lead in drinking water to 10 parts per billion by 2024. The current federal action limit is 15 parts per billion.

Snyder originally proposed that Michigan toughen the standard to 10 parts per billion by 2020 as part of a seven-point legislative initiative prompted by the Flint water crisis, but ran into legislative resistance on the lead proposal.

The EPA notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have indicated there is no safe level of lead exposure for adults or children. But children are more vulnerable.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause developmental problems.

Former EPA Director Gina McCarthy from the Obama administration told The Detroit News that the EPA has “always been challenged” in grappling with an acceptable lead and copper drinking water standard. But she agreed that the rule did not go far enough.

“Science is one thing. Getting it through the administrative process and looking at it from a reasonableness perspective is difficult,” McCarthy said. “The lead and copper rule was clearly not what we needed to have to protect people throughout the United States from lead in pipes.

“Everyone understood that needed to be updated,” she continued. “We did not have an opportunity to go through that process because it happened too late in the administration, but we sent clear signals that that needed to be updated and there were changes that needed to be made.”

Former House Oversight committee chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, was among those in Congress who called for McCarthy to resign because of problems with the regional EPA office’s handling of Flint.

In congressional testimony in March 2016, Virginia Tech water quality expert Marc Edwards faulted the former Midwest chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Susan Hedman, who in summer 2015 discredited a key in-house memo that he said should have set off alarms about the failure of water officials to properly treat Flint River water.

“EPA had the chance to be the hero here, and Ms. Hedman snatched defeat for EPA from the jaws of victory,” Edwards said.

Several Democrats including House Oversight ranking member Elijah Cummings of Maryland urged Snyder to resign during the same hearings.

An EPA report in late October found that Michigan is not always even following its existing drinking water rules in Flint or across the state, using outdated data tracking techniques amid a dearth of funding.

Staff writer Jonathan Oosting contributed