Policy Issue 2: Revisions to the Federal Lead and Copper Rule

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 [1] 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.[2] 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 says it expects to finalize the rule in the Fall of 2020, but an extended comment period, coupled with the volume and breadth of comments, could push that final rule to 2021.

A change in the administration through the 2020 election could totally upend this process. While there is much to like in the Lead and Copper Rule revisions, public health advocates are not thrilled by the retrogression in the lead service line removal requirement for utilities that reach the lead action level as well as the lack of a national ban on partial lead service line replacement. It is conceivable that if the current administration fails to win reelection in 2020, the incoming administration would be under pressure to review the Lead and Copper Rule revisions and come up with another draft rule. That could set up a new process that could take 2-3 years. Completing the rulemaking process before the next Presidential election in 2024, regardless of its content, would then become a challenge in and of itself.

Final takeaway

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. One can expect the EPA to issue a final rule in the Fall of 2020 but depending on the outcome of the 2020 Presidential elections, it may be years before a new rule is established.  We would encourage the Foundation to support advocacy that focuses on quickly revising and completing the draft rule in a new administration and then moving forward to further strengthen federal lead policies and to oppose efforts to start over.


[1] “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.

[2] A 30-day extension was added to the usual 60-day comment period, after numerous requests from utilities, trade groups, and community advocates.