Lead: Water Systems Face More Stringent Enforcement, Revisions After Flint

by Edward Ellinger, P.E.

little girl drinking water


The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has brought renewed focus to the impact of lead in our drinking water, and water systems are likely to see increased enforcement and oversight in the near future as a result.

EPA to Meet With State Officials, Water Systems to Ensure Compliance with Current Rule
On February 29, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy issued a letter to governors informing them that EPA representatives will be meeting with state drinking water program officials to assure that they fully understand the requirements of the Lead and Copper Rule and are enforcing the program properly. She asked governors to communicate the importance of this effort to their agency officials and to increase education and outreach aimed at informing the public about lead risks. The goal is to provide better information in a more timely fashion.

Education should include notifying water customers if there are elevated lead levels in their water system as quickly as possible and providing guidance on how they can reduce lead-related health risks. It should also leverage available technology to share sampling protocols and results publicly in order to provide transparency and promote renewed public trust.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Joel Beauvais issued more detailed guidance to state regulators, urging them to verify state standards for enforcing the Lead and Copper Rule are in accordance with federal guidelines. This guidance included a technical memorandum clarifying the Lead and Copper Rule sampling protocols.

Beauvais echoed McCarthy’s call for transparency by asking regulators to work with local water systems to post their compliance activities and lead monitoring results on the water system’s website or the state’s website. He also stressed the need to ensure affected customers are informed of elevated lead levels promptly and given guidance on how to minimize their health risks.

Beauvais said EPA will be providing Lead and Copper Rule training to state and public water system officials in the coming months and is in the process of strengthening the Lead and Copper Rule to further minimize health risks due to lead exposure.

EPA has, in fact, been working with stakeholders to revise the Lead and Copper Rule for several years now. The updated rule was initially expected to be released this year, but is now expected in 2017 instead.

The main group advising EPA on these revisions is the National Drinking Water Advisory Council’s Lead and Copper Rule Working Group. Members of the group include leaders of public water systems, public health departments, environmental groups, and children’s advocacy groups.

Lead Service Line Replacement
The group recently released a report of its recommendations for the Lead and Copper Rule revisions. The most notable of these recommendations is a push for water systems to implement a lead service line replacement program. This program would be designed to completely replace all lead service lines in the distribution systems by 2050. All water systems would be required to inventory their lead service lines and work with customers to participate in the program with regard to the portion of the line owned by the homeowner. This inventory would include notifying homeowners that their service line contains lead, the health risks posed, and the steps they can take to replace the line. It would also include strict record-keeping to track how often the homeowner was contacted and the response provided by the homeowner.

While the water systems would be given credit for service lines if the homeowner outright refused to replace their portion of the line, this credit would only be given after the system had exhausted all efforts to engage that homeowner. In addition, the system would have to continue to reach out to the consumer every three years or every time a home changed ownership.

The current regulations only require replacement if corrosion control chemicals do not bring lead concentrations below the regulatory threshold, and only a few systems in the U.S. have successfully implemented programs to completely replace all lead lines. Madison, Wisconsin, was the first to succeed in this effort in 2012, and Lansing, Michigan, is expected to complete replacement of its lines in the summer of 2017.

Aside from the fact that most public water systems don’t have sufficient budget for such a major capital investment without the benefit of grant funding or increased user rates, the complete replacement of lead service lines is complicated by ownership and cost responsibilities between the homeowner and the water system. The members of the Lead and Copper Rule Working Group recognize these challenges and have stated that successful replacement of lead service lines will require creative financing and a commitment by federal and state agencies, consumers, and private industry alongside the water system.

Increased Public Education and Outreach Responsibilities
Another major focus of the Working Group’s recommendations is public outreach and education. Because homeowners have shared responsibility for the replacement of lead service lines, it is imperative that they be educated about the location of these lines and the health risks presented. The current Lead and Copper Rule merely requires public education and outreach if the lead action level is exceeded.

Water systems are limited in their ability to completely eliminate lead in tap water. Most consumers don’t realize that lead exposure is typically a result of corrosion in the service lines leading to their home and that testing at the water treatment facility cannot rule out high lead concentration.

Therefore, the Working Group recommends that all consumers be proactively informed of the health risks caused by lead in drinking water, the likelihood that their water may contain lead, the responsibility they bear in eliminating lead in their drinking water (including the replacement of private service lines), and the resources available to help minimize their risk from lead exposure.

This effort includes the creation of a national clearinghouse of information concerning lead in drinking water. This clearinghouse would discuss lead-related health risks and provide consumers with information on how to get their water or their blood level tested. It would also inform the public about the sources of lead in drinking water and how to determine if they have lead service lines. For homeowners that are served by lead service lines, there would be a comparison of partial service line replacement versus full service line replacement as well as information about the costs of replacing their service line and the financing available. The site would also discuss home devices such as filters.

The Working Group recommends requiring water systems to send new customers information about “the potential for lead from plumbing materials to contaminate drinking water even when the water system meets federal requirements, to contaminate drinking water in homes with and without lead service lines, and to pose chronic and acute health risks to vulnerable populations.”

The group likewise recommends clearer language about lead in the water system’s annual Consumer Confidence Report that would emphasize the need for homeowners to take an active role in reducing lead in their tap water. It would clearly explain the role lead service lines play in the presence of lead in drinking water and the shared responsibility homeowners have with the water system to eliminate these lines. The new language would also encourage customers to have their own water tested rather than rely on the relatively small sample size being taken by the water system.

While encouraging homeowners to take an active role in lead exposure prevention, the Working Group wants to empower them in this role by increasing public access to information about lead in their local water system. The current Lead and Copper Rule only requires water systems to provide a general statement in their annual Consumer Confidence Report about the 90th percentile value of the most recent round of sampling and the number of sampling sites that exceeded the action level. More detailed information on the sampling data may not be available or may be prohibitively difficult to obtain. The Working Group recommends that the water system augment the currently required statement with more detailed sampling results (including the median levels reported), information on the sampling protocols, and an inventory of confirmed and presumed lead service lines.

Regular Re-Assessment of Corrosion Control Methods
While the current rule requires water systems to reassess corrosion control techniques whenever a change in source water or treatment technique is planned, the Working Group is recommending that water systems also be required to monitor EPA guidance on an ongoing basis to see if new scientific evidence warrants evaluating a new approach to corrosion control.

The Working Group recommends that EPA publish new guidance on corrosion control techniques every six years. Water systems would then be required to confirm that they reviewed this guidance and evaluated whether it warranted updates to their approach. Not doing so would be a violation of the rule.

Other recommendations for the 2017 Lead and Copper Rule revision include:

  • Increasing the frequency of water quality parameter (WQP) monitoring for process control and tailoring the WQP to the specific corrosion control plan for each system.
  • Separating copper into its own rule and creating new requirements specifically geared to eliminating copper corrosion: “The issues associated with lead and copper are very different and warrant more separate attention than has been the case in the past.”
  • Modifying the monitoring requirements to provide for consumer-requested tap samples and using those sample results to assess the success of corrosion control methods. This effort would provide a more complete picture of lead in the water system by increasing the pool of samples and sampling dwellings that the current rule does not prioritize. With more frequent and thorough data, the water system could better evaluate the effectiveness of its corrosion control program and make adjustments as needed.

The Working Group’s recommendations are currently under review, and the official rule is anticipated to be released by the EPA in 2017. In the meantime, water systems should make sure that they are intimately familiar with the current Lead and Copper Rule requirements and continually work with their operators and engineer to go above and beyond from a compliance and public outreach standpoint.

As the EPA begins to meet with state regulators and water system officials, water system managers and operators will need to be fully informed of the current rule and the water system’s approach to managing lead. In addition, water system managers will need to consider the anticipated changes coming next year and plan for compliance.

Ed Ellinger

Edward Ellinger, P.E., is the director of HRG’s Water and Wastewater Systems Service Group. He has 19 years of experience in the planning, design, and construction of water treatment, storage and distribution systems.