Policy Issue 2: Revisions to the Federal Lead and Copper Rule
Lead in drinking water is regulated under a few key federal laws and regulations that include the requirement to use “lead-free” pipe, solder, and flux  in water installations through the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) first promulgated in 1991, and various state and local laws focused on lead monitoring and reporting requirements at schools and child care centers and its subsequent revisions. On October 10, 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the first major revision of the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) since 1991. This action was much-awaited since the Flint water crisis in 2015, and despite giving assurances, the Trump Administration had postponed releasing the draft regulations multiple times (as did the Obama Administration).
The current Lead and Copper Rule requires public water systems to monitor for lead in drinking water and for large water systems to provide treatment for corrosive water. For all systems, if the monitoring shows that more than 10% of samples taken from high-risk residences exceeds a Lead Action Level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) the water systems must undertake a series of actions. These include system-wide corrosion control treatment, source water monitoring, and ultimately lead service line replacement. There is no safe level of lead in blood of humans, so the 15 ppb action level for public water systems is not a health-based standard. Rather it is “a trigger for treatment rather than an exposure level.” The Lead and Copper Rule does not directly apply to schools or childcare facilities, unless they are labeled a public water system.
“The federal Lead and Copper Rule is dumb and dangerous… Unless the federal rules are changed, this tragedy will befall other American cities.” – former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (2017)
The Flint water crisis and earlier crisis in Washington DC exposed limitations of the lead testing and monitoring framework under the Lead and Copper Rule. This became particularly evident in the case of multi-family housing, daycare centers, and K-12 schools. Childcare centers and schools house young children – who are most vulnerable to harm from lead.
Proposed Lead and Copper Rule Revision
The proposed revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule maintains the action level of 15 ppb for lead in 10% of the tested samples. However, it adds a new “trigger level” of 10 ppb, when water utilities are required to take action. Those required actions include consulting with their state agencies on planning and monitoring, and implementation of corrosion control treatment. Any systems with lead service lines must develop a lead service line removal plan. Additionally, if a private property owner chooses to replace their portion of a lead service line, utilities are required to replace the utility-owned section of the same lead service line within 45 days. In a major change, the proposed rule requires utilities to replace 3% of the lead service lines annually for two years if the action level of 15 ppb is attained during regular testing. On paper, this is a significant rollback of the current regulations which require 7% annual lead service line replacement. However, the current rule’s requirement is rarely implemented and testing is less extensive, so this change may prove a positive one in practice (once the rule is finalized).
Major positive changes in the revision include a requirement for all utilities to develop and make publicly available and annually update their lead service line inventory, notify customers within 24 hours if the lead action level is reached, and test for lead in 20% of K-12 schools and daycare centers annually. The draft requires utilities to notify customers if the presence of lead pipes in their water supply is unknown. And the revisions also provide flexibility to water systems serving under 10,000 people to decide their lead mitigation approach.
What happens next?
After its publication in the Federal Register on November 13th, EPA accepted public comments on the rule over a 90-day period. The EPA is now considering all the comments (nearly 80,000 received at the end of comment period, of which about 700 are unique and substantial) as it develops the final rule. EPA expects to finalize the rule in the Fall of 2020, but an extended comment period, coupled with the volume and breadth of comments have caused delays well beyond the original schedule.
How Did Public Comments Inform the Proposed Lead and Copper Rule Revisions?
The proposed revisions to the EPA rule on lead and copper regulations in drinking water attracted nearly 80,000 comments. We examined public comments submitted to this proposed rule by using natural language processing techniques to assess the nature of sentiment and topics expressed by the commenters.
Automated analysis found detectable differences between different agency types, but that these differences do not always correspond to differences of opinion. The submitted documents were largely neutral in tone, with only a slightly positive sentiment. Sentiment analysis found significant differences in the linguistic content of comments and attachments; the comment text appealed to emotion, whereas attachments appealed to logic/reason.
Natural language processing is an exciting tool to process a large set of text, but currently available techniques are not sufficient to parse language and tone to provide decisive conclusions about the authors’ intent and judgment.
Although inadequate in some respects, the proposed revisions to Lead and Copper Rule represent the most significant update to the original regulations adopted in 1991. The Flint crisis has rightfully brought attention to the issue of lead service lines, testing protocols, and asset management at water utilities. Except Michigan, Illinois and Ohio, which modified their state Lead and Copper Rules to be more stringent than the federal rule, all states follow the federal Lead and Copper Rule, so revisions proposed now will have significant health impacts on millions of people receiving piped water supply. There is wide expectation that EPA will issue a final rule in the Fall of 2020 but its effectiveness will be guided by its implementation over the next few years. There is much to be accomplished by utilities, states, and advocacy groups in ensuring that resource-poor communities and households most affected by the lead crisis are prioritized in lead replacement and mitigation efforts.
 “Lead-free” refers to solders and flux containing not more than 0.2 percent lead, and pipes and pipe fittings containing not more than 8.0 percent lead. The lead content was dropped to 0.25 percent in 2014 based upon the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act of 2011.
 A 30-day extension was added to the usual 60-day comment period, after numerous requests from utilities, trade groups, and community advocates.