WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency is preparing a revision of the way communities test their water for lead. This policy change will be presented ahead of Election Day as a major environmental achievement for a president who is not known for his conservation record.
However, a draft of the final rule received by the New York Times shows that the EPA has rejected senior medical and scientific experts who asked the agency to request the replacement of the country’s six to ten million leading service lines, a costly one but effective way to avoid crises like the one that still plagues Flint, Me.
The measure is the first major update of the 1991 lead-copper rule in nearly three decades, a regulation designed to protect drinking water from lead, a powerful neurotoxin that has been linked to developmental problems in children. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stated that there is no safe lead exposure for children, and the new rule requires testing for lead in all schools and daycare for the first time.
“The rule will better identify higher lead levels, improve the reliability of lead tooth sampling results, improve anti-corrosion treatment requirements, raise consumer awareness and improve risk communication,” the mid-July draft said.
But instead of making the sweeping changes that some health leaders believe are necessary, the EPA is opting for more modest improvements. Some experts and critics said the new rule significantly weakens the current rule, for example by more than doubling the time it takes utilities to replace water systems with serious lead pollution.
“What’s the point of making the change?” said Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, whose state set the country’s toughest guiding standard for drinking water after the Flint disaster. Michigan has also urged water companies to replace all public and private utility lines before January 1, 2041.
“We were initially encouraged that the Trump administration said they wanted to update the rule,” said Governor Whitmer. But when she found out about the final rule, she called it “painfully disappointing”.
James Hewitt, a spokesman for the EPA, said in a statement that it “is premature to draw any conclusions about a rule that is pending regulatory review”. He added that the Trump administration “is determined to finally act to better protect the health of our children and to take a holistic approach to leadership in American water systems.”
Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s administrator, has described the rule in recent speeches as a core achievement of the agency under Mr Trump, who often boasts of producing the “cleanest air” and “cleanest water” even when he has almost dismantled 70 Environmental regulations and pushes to reset another 30.
“The Obama-Biden administration said they worked on it for eight years without showing anything,” Wheeler said last week at the American Enterprise Institute of lead pipe regulations. “They even had a wake up call in Flint, Michigan in 2014, but they still haven’t done anything.”
The lead-copper rule was enacted in 1991 to regulate the level of lead in public water systems. The EPA has announced that the updated version will identify the most vulnerable communities and ensure that the communities have plans to reduce elevated lead levels.
For example, schools and daycare centers would have to inform those who use their facilities about elevated lead levels within 24 hours of the test and not within the current 30 days. The rule would also oblige water suppliers to take inventories of their pipelines and to report their locations publicly.
At a House hearing in February, Angela Licata, deputy commissioner for the New York Department of Environment, testified on behalf of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, saying a mandate to replace all leading service lines was impractical. She praised the EPA’s plan to avoid “unattainable mandates”.
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“Compliance with such a mandate would take decades, cost billions of dollars, and prevent water systems from allocating their limited budgets to other projects and initiatives that could bring greater public health benefits,” she said.
Beyond the internal debates between state and local officials, however, the new leadership rule shouldn’t damage the president’s image, say political strategists. Mr Trump’s environmental footprint has been a rallying cry for some voters as he has relentlessly pushed for measures to control air and water pollution to be phased out, while mocking and disapproving of climate change.
In the past few weeks, however, he has gone for a remarkable rebranding, even calling himself the greenest president since Theodore Roosevelt. In Jupiter, Florida, this month it approved a 10-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the southeast coast. His government has proposed lifting the moratorium altogether.
Sept. 27, 2020, 12:27 p.m. ET
Cabinet members like Mr Wheeler have tried to claim that while the Obama administration has focused on distant issues such as climate change, Mr Trump has focused on environmental issues near his home, such as the quality of water from taps.
Speaking in Florida, Trump said his administration had “tightened standards to prevent vulnerable children from being exposed to lead and copper in drinking water, including in our schools,” adding, “They were lead and copper in drinking water We did some work with it, that was important. “
Republican strategists said Mr. Trump’s campaign could seek to improve his standing among suburban women and other swing voters. But they also doubted it would pay off.
“Trump is obviously not going to lead to the climate, so they have to deal with specific problems that they can try to solve,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican Party spokesman. He said promoting things like updating the Guiding and Copper Rule is a good strategy for Mr Trump – but only because the government has “tied a hand behind its back” by refusing to focus on climate change at all to let in.
Long-time Republican pollster Frank Luntz admitted, “If you are an environmental voter in 2020, you will vote for Joe Biden.” The Trump administration’s efforts to get lead in the water “will not change a single vote,” he continued, even among indecisive voters.
Two former EPO officials said the new rule was insufficient. Ronnie Levin, a public health professor at Harvard University who pioneered the protection of lead in water, paint and gasoline for 37 years with the EPA, said the agency’s political leaders had their scientific experts out of the deliberations the new measure excluded.
Miguel Del Toral, Recently retired from the EPA in Chicago, where he also worked on the leash for more than 30 years, agreed.
“They had made up their minds about what they usually wanted and didn’t, and we kept banging our heads against the wall to argue about science,” said Del Toral.
When asked if career EPA scientists were banned from the process, Hewitt, the agency’s spokesman, said, “Our career drinking water experts are a driving force behind our more protective rulemaking.”
Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director of health for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, said the slower lead pipe replacement schedule was “a huge weakening,” adding that “it will mean another generation will drink from children. ” water contaminated with lead. “
Under the old rule, utilities had to replace some of their leading service lines if they repeatedly tested above the EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion. You were given about 14 years for full replacement. The new scheme will give them roughly 33 years to completely replace the service lines, Olson said. When utilities repeatedly test between 10 and 15 parts per billion, water systems must consult with government agencies to develop a “target rate” for replacing their supplies. However, the rule does not provide a time limit for this.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Michigan pediatrician whose research uncovered the Flint water crisis, called the new rule “heartbreaking.”
“We really failed to learn the lessons of Flint at the national level,” she said. “There is a poison in our drinking water that is not at a safe level. It’s ubiquitous. Why don’t we want to get this lead straw out of the ground? “