Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

EPA Delays Action to Update Rule Governing Lead in Drinking Water

Posted by Jon Elliott on Tue, Oct 31, 2017

Water glass 2.jpgSince 1991, Safe Drinking Water Act’s (SDWA) Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) has required public water systems (PWSs) to take steps to protect their customers from hazardous levels of lead in drinking water. Even before the highly-publicized crisis in Flint, Michigan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working toward LCR revisions that would update and expand these protective measures (continuing ongoing efforts that produced revisions in 2000 and 2007).

In October 2016, EPA produced a White Paper announcing the “urgent need” for revisions, describing key issues and possible revisions, and projecting to propose extensive LCR revisions during 2017. However, since President Trump assumed office, EPA’s priorities are shifting and its resources are being reduced (for example, I wrote about EPA’s Back-to-Basics Agenda here). Most recently, EPA’s formal agency-wide regulatory agenda now postpones the issuance of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) until January 2018 and a final rule until June 2019. While we await action, it’s worth considering how PWSs can reduce lead exposures, particularly since building owners and employers might consider improvements to plumbing and fixtures that could improve workplace water quality.

What Does LCR Require?

The LCR divides PWSs into three groups based on the numbers of customers served, and assigns tailored responsibilities for testing, corrosion control, source water treatment, and pipe replacement. The three groups are:

  1. Small—serving 3,300 customers or fewer.

  2. Medium—serving 3,301 to 50,000 customers.

  3. Large—serving more than 50,000 customers.

The LCR establishes an action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) for lead, and uses this action level as a basis for further requirements.

  • Testing

The LCR prescribes testing methods and numbers of homes to be tested. PWSs must test water at the tap in “high risk” or “tier 1” homes. If the number of tier 1 sites in a PWS’s service area is fewer than targets set by EPA, the LCR requires the PWS to sample at lower risk “tier 2” or “tier 3” homes

  • Identification and control of corrosivity in water

Lead most often enters a household’s drinking water supply when lead piping and/or solder is leached by water rendered corrosive by chemical factors. The LCR prescribes methods to determine if tap water is corrosive and, if so, to treat the water at its source to mitigate its corrosivity (failure of this step in Flint lead to widespread lead contamination). All large PWSs, and all small and medium PWSs that exceed the lead action level, must test for water quality parameters indicative of corrosivity. These PWSs must monitor representative taps and entry points throughout their system. If the water is found to be corrosive in small and medium PWSs, they must implement corrosion control. All large PWSs apply corrosion control, as do medium and small PWSs with corrosive water.

  • Source Water Treatment

Impure source water may also be a source of lead in drinking water. If a PWS implements corrosion control and exceeds the lead action level in subsequent tests, source water must be treated. The LCR specifies sampling and data management protocols, and require PWSs to submit data and a treatment recommendation to the state. Once the state approves a treatment plan, the PWS must install the treatment within 24 months and conduct follow-up testing for 12 months.

  • Lead Service Line Replacement

If tap water samples continue to exceed the action level even after implementation of corrosion control and source water treatment, the PWS must replace the lead service lines responsible for the elevated levels. The PWS must replace at least 7 percent of lead service lines each year, leading to all lead service lines within 15 years. The PWS must replace its own lines, and be available to replace customer-side lines if paid to do so. More generally, new service lines, and connection and distribution piping and equipment must be “lead free.”

  • Public notifications and education.

PWSs that exceed the lead action level must inform the public in their service area about the adverse health effects of lead and the steps people can take in their homes to reduce their exposure to lead. The education program must begin within 60 days after the PWS first tests over the action level. The education program must include certain EPA-defined elements.

What Enhancements May EPA Be Considering?

EPA’s 2016 White Paper identifies several issues that will guide the pending LCR revisions:

  • Focus on Minimizing Exposure to Lead in Drinking Water – to further improve public health protection

  • Clear and Enforceable Requirements – including more prescriptive requirements with fewer discretionary decision points

  • Transparency – including stronger consumer information and education programs

  • Environmental Justice and Children’s Health – to be reaffirmed and pursued

  • Integrating Drinking Water with Cross-Media Lead Reduction Efforts – leveraging LCR program activities with other environmental and public health programs that address lead contamination from drinking water, paint, dust, soil and other potential sources of exposure.

The agency has made no public comments on whether these Obama-era priorities will continue into the Trump-era revisions, but we know that most EPA counter-initiatives are focused on reducing compliance costs while discounting earlier analyses that militate for stronger protections in order to strengthen environmental and health protections.

Self-Assessment Checklist

Is the organization a PWS subject to LCR requirements?

  • If so, what is its present status under existing requirements?

Does the organization use water provided by a PWS?

  • If so, is the presence or absence of lead material to the organization’s activities?

Do the organization’s employees drink water provided by PWSs:

  • At the workplace?

  • At home?

Where Can I Go For More Information?
  • EPA resources:

Specialty Technical Publishers (STP) provides a variety of single-law and multi-law services, intended to facilitate clients’ understanding of and compliance with requirements. These include:

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About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 25 years. He was involved in developing 13 existing products, including Environmental Compliance: A Simplified National Guide and The Complete Guide to Environmental Law.

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

photo credit: ulisse albiati motionless earthquakes via photopin (license)

Tags: OSHA, Environmental risks, Environmental, EPA, clean water