By Lisa Friedman
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to overhaul the way communities test their water for lead, a policy change that will be pitched ahead of Election Day as a major environmental achievement for a president not noted for his conservation record.
But a draft of the final rule obtained by The New York Times shows the E.P.A. rejected top medical and scientific experts who urged the agency to require the replacement of the country’s six million to 10 million lead service lines, an expensive but effective way to avoid crises like the one still afflicting Flint, Mich.
The measure is the first major update in nearly three decades to the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, a regulation aimed at protecting drinking water from lead, a potent neurotoxin that has been linked to developmental problems in children. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said there is no safe level of lead exposure for children, and the new rule requires for the first time testing for lead in all schools and day care centers.
“The rule will better identify high levels of lead, improve the reliability of lead tap sampling results, strengthen corrosion control treatment requirements, expand consumer awareness and improve risk communication,” the draft from mid-July says.
But rather than enact the sweeping changes that some health leaders say are necessary, the E.P.A. is opting for more modest improvements. Some experts and critics said the new rule actually weakens the current rule in significant ways, for instance, by more than doubling the amount of time utilities can have to replace water systems with serious levels of lead contamination.
“What’s the point of making the change?” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, whose state enacted the country’s toughest lead standard for drinking water in the wake of the Flint disaster. Michigan also has required water suppliers to replace all lead service lines on public and private property before January 1, 2041.
“Originally, we were encouraged that the Trump administration said they wanted to update the rule,” Governor Whitmer said. But when told of the final rule, she called it “sorely disappointing.”
James Hewitt, a spokesman for the E.P.A., said in a statement that it is “premature to draw any conclusions on a rule that is still undergoing interagency review.” He added that the Trump administration “is committed to finally acting to better protect our children’s health and holistically address lead in America’s water systems.”
Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the E.P.A., has described the rule in recent speeches as a core achievement of the agency under Mr. Trump, who often boasts of producing the “cleanest air” and the “cleanest water” even as he has dismantled nearly 70 environmental regulations and is pushing to roll back another 30.
“The Obama-Biden administration claimed to have worked on it for eight years, with nothing to show,” Mr. Wheeler said of lead pipe regulations while speaking at the American Enterprise Institute last week. “They even had a wake-up call in Flint, Mich., in 2014 but still did nothing.”
The Lead and Copper Rule was enacted in 1991 to regulate the levels of lead in public water systems. The E.P.A. has said the updated version will identify the most at-risk communities and make sure that communities have in place plans to reduce elevated levels of lead.
Schools and child care centers, for example, would be required to notify those who use their facilities of elevated lead levels within 24 hours of testing rather than the current 30 days. The rule also would require water utilities to conduct inventories of their lead service pipes and publicly report their locations.
At a House hearing in February, Angela Licata, the deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, was testifying on behalf of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, and said a mandate to replace all lead service lines was impractical. She praised the E.P.A. plan for avoiding “unattainable mandates.”
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