Since 1991 the Lead and Copper Rule has undergone various revisions, but requires that: (1) water utilities optimize their treatment system to control corrosion in customers plumbing; (2) determine the tap water levels of lead and copper for customers who have lead service lines or lead-based solder in their plumbing systems; (3) rule out the source water as the source of significant lead levels; (4) if lead levels exceed action levels (0.015 mg/L) the supplier is required to educate their customers about lead and actions they can take to reduce their exposure to lead. If a water utilities’ corrosion control treatment plan continues to fail to reduce lead below lead action level it must begin replacing the lead service lines under its ownership.
The NRDC analysis indicates that in 2015, over 18 million people were served by 5,363 community water systems in the nation that violated the Lead and Copper Rule. These violations included; failure to test customer tap water for lead in an appropriate manner, failure to control corrosion that could result in lead contamination from the distribution system or homeowner pipes, and failure to report contamination to state officials or the public. In addition, the NRDC found that in 2015, 1,110 community water systems that supply drinking water to over 3.9 million people found lead levels in excess of 15 parts per billion (ppb) in at least 10% of the homes tested. This level of lead contamination is the regulatory action level established for lead under the Lead and Copper Rule.
In most cases not action was taken. According to the data analyzed by NRDC, the EPA took formal enforcement action against only 11.2 % of the over 8,000 violations that occurred in 2015. In addition, enforcement actions were taken against less than one in five of the violations where lead concentrations exceeded 15 ppm, and penalties were sought or assessed for only 3% of violations. The EPA’s database does not list Flint Michigan among the systems in violation of the Lead and Copper Rule. In fact, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) apparently still has not officially reported Flint to be in violation of the Lead and Copper Rule. This is characteristic of the data. The EPA itself admits that “audits and assessments have shown that violation data are substantially incomplete.” The EPA has failed our nation in its primary mission and we need to reconsider the methods we as a nation use to ensure the quality of our air and water and the protection of our lands.
The nation’s water infrastructure the pipes, treatment plants and other critical components that deliver drinking water and remove and treat waste water have grown old. In many of our cities water pipes installed when systems were built have only been replaced when they break. The building service lines that connect homes and businesses to the water mains are often the original lines.
For decades instead of replacing lead pipes urban water companies (especially in poor rust belt cities that are shrinking) have used chemicals to control lead and other chemicals from leaching into the water supply. Many at the American Water Works Association and other trade groups have questioned the wisdom of this strategy, there is always some lead leaching and many of us believe that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. No amount of exposure to lead is safe. Our national goal is to eliminate exposure to lead especially for children, who are both more susceptible to lead poisoning and suffer more severe impacts. Even at very low levels once considered safe, lead can cause serious, irreversible damage to the developing brains and nervous systems of babies and young children. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that “the consequences of brain injury from exposure to lead in early life are loss of intelligence, shortening of attention span and disruption of behavior.”
Historically, state and federal regulations have stressed safety, reliability and affordability of service and have looked to determine the “most technologically feasible and cost-effective” strategies to maintain water systems. This has not allowed the water distribution systems to price into their fees the costs of planned preventive maintenance and system replacement program. Worse yet many cities and towns have used the water utility revenues to supplement other city services. We have failed to maintain the infrastructure, to stay ahead of water system, equipment and pipe failure. We wait for failure before we fix it that is the wrong approach. The human and society costs as the consequences of getting every last day of use out of a pipe or piece of equipment need to be weighed against the benefit of cheap water. Prices for water will need to go up so that water treatment and distribution companies can maintain replace and upgrade their infrastructure before it fails, doing otherwise is unacceptable.