POLITICS
04/04/2018 05:55 pm ET Updated Apr 05, 2018

Scott Pruitt's EPA Taking Its Time Fixing The Regulation That Poisoned Flint's Water

This is one regulation Pruitt has said should be stronger.

WASHINGTON ― Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt rolled back limits on planet-warming emissions for motor vehicles this week, adding the rule to the list of more than two dozen environmental regulations his agency has cut in the last year.

But there’s one regulation Pruitt has said the EPA should actually enforce more vigorously: the Safe Drinking Water Act’s limit on lead particles in tap water.

Experts have faulted weak enforcement of the so-called Lead and Copper Rule for the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The EPA has been working on major revisions to the regulation since 2010, but so far has not produced an updated rule that would provide better protections against contamination.

The rule is designed to minimize the danger of lead water pipes. It requires utilities to test for lead in water samples from household taps and to treat water to minimize pipe corrosion since lead is a deadly neurotoxin that dissolves in water with no obvious flavor. There are millions of lead pipes in use across the country and utilities are rarely required to replace them. 

Pruitt’s predecessor had said the agency would have a draft of a new rule in 2017. But while Pruitt has said updating the rule is a top priority, his EPA has postponed the deadline to later this year. A spokesperson for the agency said Wednesday that Pruitt is still committed to the regulation.

“After more than a decade of inaction on a new rule, Administrator Pruitt has directed his team to work swiftly to update the Lead and Copper Rule,” an EPA spokesperson told HuffPost.

Pruitt recently drew headlines for reportedly using a different provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to secure raises for aides, one of several scandals in recent weeks that has overshadowed his policy work. Even several Republicans have said he ought to resign.

Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator in President Barack Obama’s second term, faced calls to resign for her handling of the Flint water crisis. Though whistleblowers both inside and outside the agency had warned the EPA of high lead content in Flint’s water, the agency initially declined to take enforcement action under the rule, citing ambiguities in the regulatory text. Blood tests later revealed elevated lead levels in thousands of Flint children. Lead exposure can cause brain damage in children and miscarriages in adult women.

At his confirmation hearing, Pruitt said the EPA should have enforced the rule more vigorously at the time. But preliminary Safe Drinking Water enforcement data on the EPA’s website suggests a slight decline in enforcement actions in 2017, Pruitt’s first year in office ― though the data encompass actions related to other parts of the law, such as chloroform and disinfectant byproducts, not just lead.

During a hearing in January, Pruitt told lawmakers that updating the Lead and Copper Rule is a top priority. And yet the EPA announced last fall that it doesn’t plan to issue a draft rule until August 2018, and a final rule until February 2020.

In the meantime, the agency is seeking more input from state and local governments, as well as utilities, which were invited to a formal meeting in January. The agency spokesperson said the EPA is “evaluating input we recently received from our state, local and tribal partners as well as the best available peer reviewed science to ensure the rule reflects the best ways to improve public health protection.”

Some of rule’s critics didn’t love all the changes that had previously been under consideration, so there’s a bit of a wait-and-see attitude toward the current process. But Mae Wu, a policy expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, didn’t take the January meeting as a reassuring sign. They left out a whole slew of stakeholders like public health groups and environmental groups,” Wu said.

In recent comments formally submitted to the EPA, utilities and trade groups cautioned against requiring water systems to find and replace lead pipes connecting water mains to people’s houses. Such pipes, known as service lines, are sometimes made from lead and are usually the primary contributor of water lead at household taps. But the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, for instance, said in a March letter that the cost of replacing lead service lines “is too great to be mandated for water systems.”

The state of Michigan, for its part, has been working on its own, far more aggressive version of the Lead and Copper Rule, one that would mandate stringent lead service line replacements. Most states simply follow the minimum requirements of the federal law, which only requires pipe replacement as a last resort, and which also allows utilities to replace only the portion of a service line that’s on public property. But Michigan’s law would exceed that limit by requiring full replacements at public expense. 

“We have no firm date for when EPA will promulgate a new LCR which is part of the reason the state decided to press forward with our own improvements to the rule,” Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said in an email.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

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