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EPA Proposes Changing How Communities Test For Lead In Water, But Critics Want More From Plan

Dmitry Naumov
While EPA officials proposed changes would overhaul lead in water regulations, critics say they don't go far enough.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) thinks it's come up with a good formula to better protect Americans from lead in drinking water, calling it a major and much-needed overhaul. Officials unveiled the proposal Thursday in Green Bay. But concern is already bubbling up among those who feel the EPA changes aren't stringent enough.

The existing regulation is called the Lead and Copper Rule. It limits the amount of lead that can be found in drinking water.

The rule has been around since 1991. It's never been modified — even after the lead crisis in Flint, Mich., and a growing awareness that no amount of lead exposure is safe, especially for young children.

READ: What Does Milwaukee's Lead Service Line Replacement Mandate Mean?

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler says his agency is now taking a proactive and holistic approach to tackling lead in water.  

"We are advancing the Trump administration's federal action plan to reduce childhood lead exposure," Wheeler says. "And we are delivering on the president's commitment to ensuring that all Americans have access to clean and safe drinking water."

Wheeler says while the ultimate goal is to replace all of the old lead pipes that deliver water throughout the country, the goal comes with a $700 billion price tag.

READ: Is Clean Water Achievable In Wisconsin?

So, the EPA administrator says the proposed rule changes zeroes in on the most vulnerable – day cares and schools, and families living in at risk communities.

"What we're focusing on is making sure that those communities regardless of their ZIP code ... that those communities that have the worst lead in their pipes get those pipes replaced first," Wheeler says.

Carly Michiels, government relations director with Clean Wisconsin, hasn’t had time to digest the entire 347-page proposal. But she’s found elements that she supports.

"Testing in schools and childcare centers; creating an inventory where lead laterals are, so you can start prioritizing communities that are most vulnerable to lead contamination — those are big things," Michiels says.

"In Wisconsin alone, the DNR estimated there are 192,000 lead service lines across the state. If we don't remove them, we're not fixing anything." - Carly Michiels, Clean Wisconsin

But the proposal fails to take what Michiels considers the most important step forward. She says the rule would still allow lead levels that are dangerously high.

"It's currently set at 15 ppb [parts per billion], and it's been proven and shown there are harmful effects to your health from lead contamination that are levels at 15 and 10 — and even 5," Michiels says. "Not addressing this action level, which is set too high, is completely a mis-rewrite of this rule and leaving it out is a mistake."

At Thursday's ceremony, EPA officials said they chose to convene in Green Bay because the agency hopes to replicate what the city has done. Green Bay is well on its way to replacing all of its lead service lines by the end of 2020. 

Clean Wisconsin's Michiels believes the revised federal lead law is an opportunity to turn the EPA's aspiration to action.

"In Wisconsin alone, the DNR estimated there are 192,000 lead service lines across the state. If we don't remove them, we're not fixing anything," Michiels says.

The public can weigh in on the proposal. A 60-day comment window opens when the draft is published on the federal registry.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler hopes to finalize the lead rule by next summer.

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