By Jay Landers

Looking to expedite efforts to remove lead from drinking water systems nationally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has called for a 10-year deadline for identifying and eliminating all lead service lines, or the pipes that connect a water main to the plumbing within a house or building. The deadline is a key component of the EPA’s recently proposed changes to the Lead and Copper Rule, which regulates the presence of the two elements in drinking water.

Known as the Lead and Copper Rule Improvements, the EPA’s proposed rule was publicly released in late November and printed in the Federal Register on Dec. 6. Among its other key provisions, the LCRI also would require that drinking water providers continually update their ongoing efforts to locate LSLs, lower the lead action level that determines if water systems must take certain steps to reduce lead in drinking water, and alter how water providers conduct sampling to test for the presence of lead in drinking water.

For its part, ASCE “strongly supports prioritizing removal of lead service lines,” says Matthew McGinn, the Society’s senior manager for government relations. Such an action is in keeping with ASCE Policy Statement 361 on safe drinking water, McGinn notes. Under the policy statement, the Society recommends “specific programs and funding for water quality improvements for removal of lead in water systems,” according to PS 361.

More than 9 million LSLs

“Lead in drinking water is a generational public health issue, and EPA’s proposal will accelerate progress towards President (Joe) Biden’s goal of replacing every lead pipe across America once and for all,” said Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, in a Nov. 30 news release. “With collaboration and the focused actions proposed today, EPA is delivering on our charge to protect all Americans, especially communities of color, that are disproportionately harmed by lead in drinking water systems.”

An estimated 9.2 million LSLs exist in the United States, according to the seventh Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment that the EPA released in April. Issued by the agency every four years, the DWINSA is a congressionally mandated report that estimates the financial needs of the U.S. drinking water infrastructure during the next 20 years.

Of the projected 99.9 million service lines nationally, approximately 9% are LSLs, according to the DWINSA. Of these, most are in the middle to eastern United States, particularly in Florida, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Included as part of the LSL estimate are galvanized pipes that are known to have been downstream of lead pipes or connectors or other lead sources. Given their downstream locations, these galvanized pipes could have adsorbed lead that leached from the upstream lead components. For the purposes of the proposed LCRI, such galvanized pipes are referred to as “galvanized requiring replacement service lines.”

Reducing lead releases

“When LSLs are present, they represent the greatest lead exposure source through drinking water,” the EPA states in its proposed rule. “EPA proposes that water systems must replace LSLs and certain galvanized service lines regardless of the lead levels occurring in tap or other drinking water samples. This proposal would significantly reduce the potential for lead releases into drinking water.”

Under the proposed LCRI, a drinking water system would be required to replace all lead and GRR service lines and any lead connectors that are “under a water system’s control,” with limited exceptions, according to the proposed rule.

Such components would be under a water system’s control in locations where a water system “has access (e.g., legal access, physical access) to conduct full service line replacement,” according to the proposed rule. In locations where it does not have such access, a water system would not be required to replace the service line. However, the water system “must document the reasons that the water system does not have access and include any specific laws, regulations, and/or water tariff agreements that affect the water system’s ability to gain access to conduct full lead and (GRR) service line replacement,” according to the proposed rule.

Drinking water systems would be required to meet a “national minimum average annual service line replacement rate of at least 10%, with compliance assessed in accordance with a three-year rolling average, equating to a 10-year replacement deadline,” according to the EPA about the proposed LCRI. That said, states “must require systems to replace service lines by an earlier deadline if they determine that an earlier deadline is feasible,” the EPA explains.

Water systems meeting one of two criteria would have the option to take longer than 10 years to replace their LSLs. Systems having to make the equivalent of 39 or more service line replacements per 1,000 households would be eligible for a “deferred replacement deadline,” according to the EPA. At the same time, systems that would have to replace more than 10,000 service lines annually also would be eligible for a deferred replacement deadline.

These deferred deadline options won praise from the American Water Works Association. “We are pleased that EPA recognizes that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work and is proposing a formula to help systems with large numbers of lead lines in their service areas comply with the rule,” said David LaFrance, the CEO of AWWA, in a Nov. 30 news release.

Cost concerns

Although it also supports the goal of removing all LSLs, AWWA notes that doing so will prove difficult for some water providers. “Some communities and their local partners will have to overcome barriers in order to accelerate lead service line replacement and meet EPA’s proposed timeline,” LaFrance said in the Nov. 30 release.

“For example, not every property owner is amenable to replacing a service line, even when the water system bears partial or full cost,” LaFrance said. “In many states, water systems do not have legal authority to access private property without the owner’s permission and lack clear authority to spend public ratepayer funds to remove lines on private property.”

The cost of replacing all LSLs also will complicate matters, LaFrance noted. With the average cost to fully replace an LSL totaling more than $10,000, the total cost to replace all such service lines “could easily exceed $90 billion,” he said. “Even with the unprecedented $15 billion injection for lead service line replacement from the federal bipartisan infrastructure act, water bills will rise to pay for this initiative. Recognizing that many households already struggle to pay their water bills, we look forward to working with EPA and other partners to lessen the cost burden in disadvantaged communities.”

The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies also called for greater federal support for efforts to remove LSLs. “AMWA urges 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,” said Tom Dobbins, AMWA’s CEO, in a Nov. 30 news release.

Updating inventories

Currently, the EPA is requiring that water providers conduct initial inventories of LSLs within their distribution systems by Oct. 16. Although the LCRI would not change this requirement, it would “require water systems to review records for information on connector materials and include lead connector materials” in their inventory, according to the FAQ document.

In addition to requiring that water systems update their LSL inventories annually, the LCRI would mandate that systems “use a validation process to ensure the service line inventory is accurate,” according to the proposed rule. Providers also would be required to “identify all service lines of unknown material by the replacement deadline,” the proposed rule states.

Lower lead action level

Under current regulations, drinking water systems are required to test for lead in tap water samples from certain homes. If 10% of the samples have lead concentrations in excess of the lead action level of 0.015 mg/L, a drinking water system must conduct such actions as public notification, public education, and LSL replacement.

In the LCRI, the EPA is proposing to lower the lead action level to 0.010 mg/L. Systems exceeding this lead action level would be required to meet additional public notification and education requirements and install corrosion control treatment to prevent the leaching of lead from components in the distribution system or optimize existing corrosion control treatment. However, the requirement for corrosion control treatment would be deferred for water systems that “can remove 100% of their lead and GRR service lines at a minimum rate of 20% per year within five years,” according to the EPA.

The EPA’s current requirements for sampling tap water for lead and copper call for drinking water systems to collect samples from the first and fifth liters of water drawn from taps. Sampling the fifth liter increases the “likelihood that samples capture water that has been sitting in contact with LSLs,” according to the proposed rule.

Under the LCRI, the EPA would maintain this sampling requirement but would require that drinking water systems “use the higher of the two values to calculate the 90th percentile lead level to improve identification of higher risk sites for lead,” according to the proposed rule. “This new method would better represent water that has been stagnant within the service line and the plumbing, helping water systems better understand the effectiveness of their corrosion control treatment.”

The deadline for submitting comments on the proposed rule is Feb. 5. The EPA says that it expects to issue the final rule by October.

This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.