Lead’s adverse health effects—especially for children, even at low levels of exposure—have driven continuing efforts to reduce lead exposure through drinking water. Primarily, lead enters drinking water after leaving the treatment plant, when lead may leach into water from plumbing materials or pipes. Accordingly, controlling corrosion of plumbing and pipes has been the principal method used to keep lead from entering public water supplies. Congress has used several approaches under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to limit lead in drinking water. These approaches include limiting the lead content of plumbing materials and fixtures; establishing public notification and education requirements; authorizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate contaminants in public water supplies; and authorizing grant programs for lead reduction projects, testing for lead in water at schools and child care programs, and removing lead-lined drinking water coolers from schools.
Using SDWA authorities, EPA developed the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). The LCR is unlike most drinking water regulations. It does not include a health-based standard (i.e., maximum contaminant level [MCL]); rather, the rule established a treatment technique and action levels. The LCR specifies an action level of 15 ppb for lead (and 1,300 ppb for copper), based on the 90th percentile of a water system’s tap water samples (i.e., 90% of samples collected as a part of tap water monitoring should provide water with lead and copper levels below 15 ppb and 1,300 ppb, respectively). The LCR’s treatment technique includes (1) corrosion control treatment, (2) source water treatment, (3) lead service line (LSL) replacement, and (4) public education. Unlike an MCL, an action level is not an enforceable standard, but is instead a screening tool for determining whether treatment technique actions are required. Failure to implement the required actions is enforceable.
Since promulgation of the LCR, lead exposures from drinking water have declined in the United States. However, ongoing detections of lead in drinking water and issues with implementation and interpretation of the LCR, as well as scientific and technological advancements, have generated interest in its revision. EPA issued interim revisions in 2007, and has since worked with states, water systems, and other stakeholders to develop comprehensive, “long-term” revisions to the rule.
EPA published final Lead and Copper Rule Revisions, or LCRR, in the Federal Register on January 15, 2021, with an effective date of March 16, 2021. The LCRR revises the LCR. On January 20, 2021, the Biden Administration issued a letter directing executive agencies and departments to delay for 60 days the effective date of rules published in the Federal Register that had not yet entered into effect, to allow the Administration to review such rules. After the review, EPA announced the extension of the LCRR’s effective date from March 16, 2021, until June 17, 2021, and proposed to delay the rule’s effective date to December 16, 2021. In the preamble to the LCRR, EPA notes the need to modernize and improve the LCR by strengthening health protections and clarifying requirements to improve the rule’s effectiveness and enforceability. The LCRR retains for certain purposes the 1991 LCR’s 15 ppb lead action level. However, the LCRR also establishes a new lead “trigger level” at 10 ppb, based on the 90th percentile of tap water samples.
Because the trigger level is more stringent than the action level, the LCRR requires public water systems to take treatment technique actions at lower lead levels than those required by the LCR. The LCRR also requires water systems to identify LSLs within their distribution system and to test for lead at schools and child care programs within their service area to better target monitoring and, as required, LSL replacement. The LCRR requires water system operators to develop an LSL replacement plan and to replace its portion of an LSL within 45 days (or 180 days with state notification) of being notified of a customer’s intent to replace their LSL portion. Further, the revisions make several changes to the sampling protocols for conducting tap water monitoring. The LCRR also includes the enhanced public notification requirements added by the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN; P.L. 114-322).
The revisions may result in implementation and enforcement challenges for public water systems and states with delegated enforcement responsibility for SDWA. Some systems may experience implementation challenges when complying with the revisions; for example, public water systems may need additional financial resources to meet the LSL replacement requirements. The revised rule’s alternative compliance options for small water systems could pose particular challenges to states, as states may need additional resources to evaluate, approve, and track each system’s implementation.
“Addressing Lead in Drinking Water: The Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCRR),” CRS Report R46794, May 17, 2021 (30-page PDF)
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