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EPA regional administrator says “tweaks” to Lead and Copper Rule alone won’t fix problems

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Crews in Flint work to replace a lead service line.

The U.S. EPA is making long term revisions to the 25-year-old Lead and Copper Rule. The new rules are expected to come out this year. A top EPA official says one of the biggest changes could be an expensive one.

Because of the water crisis in Flint, city officials now know there are more than 20,000 lead service lines, the water pipes connecting homes to a water main, still buried underground in Flint.

Because of Flint, we know that other cities are now at least trying to figure out how many lead service lines they have and where they’re located.

Detroit has around 125,000 lead lines, at last estimate. That number does not include Detroit’s many older suburbs with lead lines too. Grand Rapids has at least 17,000. There are thousands in Battle Creek, Saginaw, Jackson and Kalamazoo.

“But that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Bob Kaplan, who’s served for a year as Acting Regional Administrator at U.S. EPA’s Region 5, which includes Michigan and much of the Midwest.

The rest of the iceberg, to use Kaplan’s analogy, is that there are still an estimated 6.5-10 million lead service lines in cities nationwide.

Where are lead water pipes in Michigan? Here’s our best guess

This week hundreds of water system operators and industry insiders gathered for a water summit in Flint. Kaplan told them initially it looked like improving the Lead and Copper Rule by clarifying certain aspects about corrosion control treatment and closing some testing loopholes, would be enough to prevent another Flint water crisis.

“Initially folks looked at those fixes and said that was going to be good enough nationwide, that that was sort of the lesson of Flint,” Kaplan said at the water summit.

“Instead, what’s come out of it is we found that we have lots more concerns. That it’s not going to be fixed with just merely tweaks to a regulation. In fact, we’re not going to regulate our way out of this at all.”

Kaplan suggested to the crowd in Flint this week that “fixing crumbling infrastructure,” especially finding and replacing lead service lines, will likely become a bigger priority than it’s been for the agency.

He says long term revisions of the federal Lead and Copper Rule are important and still in the works. The EPA is expect to release revisions later this year.

“Many of the proposals now, and nothing is final, but many of the proposals now center around efforts to get lead lines out,” Kaplan said later.

Under the current rule, cities only have to start replacing lead service lines after lead levels are high. By then, the damage to people who drank that water is already happening. Instead of waiting for a problem, the EPA might push water systems to find ways to dig up and replace all their lead lines. Even if a city’s lead levels are considered “safe.”

“I don’t think the Lead and Copper Rule, even if we completely reform it, is going to be the regulatory fix to all of this,” Kaplan said. “It’s really going to be shovels in the ground.”

In a report EPA released last October, the agency estimated the cost of replacing the nation’s lead lines between $16 billion and $80 billion. Unfortunately, older cities in the Midwest and Northeast U.S. with high poverty rates, cities like Detroit and Flint, will tend to have more lead pipes underground.

Last year, the board of the American Water Works Association threw its support behind locating and completely removing lead service lines. AWWA CEO David LaFrance says most communities are coming around to the idea.

“I wouldn’t say we get pushback,” LaFrance said. “We get a lot of questions as to ‘How do we do this? How do we balance this against all of our other community priorities?'”

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown discussed his city's efforts to verify records and locate lead lines. The city hopes to run a pilot program for lead line replacements to get a better idea of the potential financial and legal hurdles of total replacement.

Detroit, like many cities, owns a portion of the service line. So the city must work with property owners to replace lines. It would be "optimal" to be able to replace 10,000 a year, a DWSD spokesperson said.

U.S. EPA's Bob Kaplan pointed to the State Revolving Fund (SRF) as a potential way to help water systems fund pipeline replacement projects. Congress also passed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which included a provision to help replace pipes in Flint because of it’s emergency situation.

President Donald Trump and his administration say they’ll focus major spending on infrastructure. That’s a bright spot, Kaplan said. When he does meet his new boss, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, Kaplan says he’ll suggest lead service line replacement as a way to invest in badly need infrastructure improvements, create jobs and improve public health.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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