US requires replacing of lead pipes within 10 years

The Biden administration is proposing new restrictions that would require the removal of virtually all lead water pipes across the country in an effort to prevent another public health catastrophe like the one that came to define Flint, Michigan.

The proposal Thursday from the Environmental Protection Agency would impose the strictest limits on lead in drinking water since federal standards were first set 30 years ago. It would affect about 9 million pipes that snake throughout communities across the country.


“This is the strongest lead rule that the nation has ever seen,” Radhika Fox, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water, said in an interview. “This is historic progress.”

Digging up and replacing lead pipes from coast to coast is no small undertaking. The EPA estimates the price at $20 billion to $30 billion over the course of a decade. The rule would require the nation’s utilities — and most likely their ratepayers — to absorb most of that cost, but $15 billion is available from the 2021 infrastructure law to help them pay for it.

Tom Dobbins, the chief executive of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, said his members would need both technical help and more financial assistance from the federal government to comply with the proposed regulations. He urged the EPA to “focus on providing drinking water systems with the resources and tools necessary to achieve this ambitious goal, and working toward eliminating the real barriers that exist for many utilities.”

In a statement, the association said it had repeatedly called attention to a long list of obstacles that make it difficult to replace lead pipes, including rising costs, supply chain problems, labor shortages and incomplete or missing building records.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system and the brain. It poses a particular danger to infants and children and can impair their cognitive development, cause behavioral disorders and lead to lower IQs. From the nation’s earliest days, lead was used to make pipes to carry water to homes and businesses. But when plumbing corrodes, lead can leach into drinking water.

The problem drew national attention in 2014 in Flint, when a change in the water source and inadequate treatment and testing caused significant lead contamination. Lead and Legionella bacteria leached into the tap water of about 100,000 residents between 2014 and 2015.

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