A new proposal from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeks to revamp a decades-old rule limiting the amount of lead and copper allowed in drinking water.
One facet of the rule mandating drinking water testing in schools and child-care facilities could ensure that hundreds of untested Indiana schools verify that their drinking water is lead-free.
Schools and child care centers in Indiana, like elsewhere, are not required to test their drinking water, but the state does offer free lead testing for public school districts.
The Indiana Environmental Reporter found that only 60% of the state’s public schools enrolled in the state testing program in the 2017-2018 school year, the last year reported. Nearly 40% of all public schools in the state did not report any kind of lead testing at all.
About 62% of schools tested had at least one water fixture with lead levels over 15 ppb, the amount that requires immediate action by law. That can mean line replacement or the installation of other water quality measures.
IDEM told the Indiana Environmental Reporter that Indiana schools are ultimately responsible for monitoring their own drinking water for lead. The proposal, in its current version, could change that.
If the proposal is implemented, public water systems would be required to test drinking water at 20% of schools and licensed child-care centers in their service area every year. The systems would have to complete the testing of every school and center in their area every five years.
EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said the proposal seeks to protect the nation’s most vulnerable populations.
“The system would be required to provide the results as well as information on actions the school or childcare facility can take to reduce lead in drinking water,” said Wheeler. “We want to make sure that the parents of those children know what the lead content is in the water where they send their children every day.”
Only schools that use private wells as their sole water source are required to test for drinking water quality.
According to the EPA, the nation’s 98,000 public schools and 500,000 child care facilities are not directly regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulates the amount of chemicals allowed in public drinking water systems.
Under the proposal, a public water system would be required to collect samples from five drinking water outlets at each school and two drinking water outlets at each child care facility served by that system.
“This proposal builds upon the successes and the lessons learned from the 1991 (Lead and Copper Rule) on how the drinking water community can continue to reduce lead levels in drinking water,” said the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, the professional association serving state drinking water programs, in a statement. “ASDWA looks forward to continuing to work with EPA on implementing the final Long-Term Revisions for the Lead and Copper Rule as this rule applies to almost 80,000 water systems and implementation of the final (rule) is going to be a big lift.”
The rule also includes other changes to the current Lead and Copper Rule that the EPA says will help identify the parts of the United States most impacted by lead contamination and strengthen drinking water treatment.
The EPA’s proposal would require water systems to prepare and update a publicly-available inventory of lead service lines and collect tap samples from homes with lead service lines.
The water systems would be required to find and fix sources of lead when a sample in a home exceeds 15 ppb.
One of the main parts of the proposal that has drawn the most ire from critics is the percentage of lead service lines water systems will be required to replace every year.
The current rule requires water utilities to remove lead service lines at a rate of 7% per year. The EPA proposal would reduce that rate to 3% per year.
Critics, like the National Resources Defense Council, say that could extend the life of toxic lead service lines by two decades.
“EPA’s proposed approach to lead service line replacement is wrongheaded. A water utility does not need 33 years to replace its lead services lines,” said Dimple Chaudhary, senior attorney with NRDC and lead counsel in the Flint, Michigan, drinking water case. “It will have taken Flint only three years to get its toxic lead pipes out of the ground. The rule suggests the EPA has learned little from the disaster in Flint.”
In Flint, more than half the service lines to homes are made of lead. Thousands of people were contaminated with lead and iron when the city changed water sources during a building project. The increased corrosiveness of the water leached lead from the lines and was present in drinking water.
The EPA administrator said the concerns were due to faulty math and a misunderstanding of loopholes present in the current rules.
“They’re not looking at the math correctly. The old number that they’re looking at is 7%, but there were off ramps where you didn’t have to actually replace 7%. So, our 3% that is required to be replaced every single year is actually far more aggressive than what the previous regulation had,” said Wheeler in a press conference. “In the past, if you were in noncompliance, you were able to change your monitoring or your testing, and after maybe six months say that you’re in compliance and stop the replacement.”
The public will have a chance to submit comments on the proposed rule once it is published in the Federal Register. Once that happens, the public will have 60 days to submit their input at this site by entering the Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2017-0300 in the search bar.