The proposal follows water crises in Flint, Mich., and the na6on’s capital. The agency says the new standards would bolster health.

By Michael Phillis (Associated Press)


WASHINGTON — Philadelphia and other U.S. cities would have to replace lead water pipes within 10 years under strict new rules proposed Thursday by the Environmental Protec6on Agency as the Biden administration moves to reduce lead in drinking water and prevent public health crises like the ones in Flint, Mich., and Washington.

Millions of people consume drinking water from lead pipes, and the agency said tighter standards would improve IQ scores in children and reduce high blood pressure and heart disease in adults. It is the strongest overhaul of lead rules in more than three decades and will cost billions of dollars.

Pulling it off will require overcoming enormous practical and financial obstacles.

“These improvements ensure that in a not-too-distant future, there will never be another city and another child poisoned by their pipes,” said Mona Hanna-AUsha, a pediatrician and clean-water advocate who raised early alarms about Flint.

The Biden administration has previously said it wants all of the na6on’s roughly 9 million lead pipes to be removed, and rapidly. Lead pipes connect water mains in the street to homes and are typically the biggest source of lead in drinking water. They are most common in older, industrial parts of the country.

Lead crises have hit poorer, majority-Black cities like Flint especially hard, propelling the risks of lead in drinking water into the national consciousness. Their impact reaches beyond public health. AYer the crises, tap water use declined na6onally, especially among Black and Hispanic people. The Biden administration says investment is vital to fix this injustice and ensure everyone has safe, lead-free drinking water.

“We’re trying to right a long-standing wrong here,” said Radhika Fox, head of the EPA Office of Water. “We’re bending the arc towards equity and jus6ce on this legacy issue.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.), representing states that have faced lead crises, agreed in a joint statement, ci6ng both the new rule and the Biden administra6on’s infrastructure investments. “We can make a lead-free future a reality for all, no matter the color or their skin or their zip code,” they said.

In Philadelphia, the exact number of lead pipes in use is unknown, but the city Water Department es6mated in 2017 that 20,000 of the city’s 511,000 proper6es receive water through lead pipes.

One of the new rules the EPA is proposing would require ci6es to inventory all lead pipes in their jurisdic6ons, which would result in a more accurate count.

All of the city’s lead pipes are service lines connecting households to the city’s water mains under the streets. That makes it more difficult to replace pipes because the city needs homeowners’ permission to locate and replace lines on their proper6es.

Philadelphia, which has long used iron instead of lead for its water mains, does not have as big of a lead pipe problem as some of its peers.

The EPA proposal, called the lead and copper rule improvements, would for the first 6me require utilities to replace lead pipes even if their lead levels aren’t too high. Most cities have not been forced to replace their lead pipes and many don’t even know where they are.

The proposal calls for ci6es to eliminate lead pipes at a pace of 10% per year. That would be a major increase in pace for Philadelphia, which currently replaces 1% to 2% of its lead pipes per year, Water Department spokesperson Brian Rademaekers said.

There are some excep6ons to the 10-year lead pipe replacement deadline. A few cities like Chicago with lots of lead pipes may get longer. Water utilities with dense

networks of lead pipes — as many as 2,000 of them — could also get more than 10 years, the proposal says.

The push to reduce lead in tap water is part of a broader federal effort to combat lead exposure that includes proposed stricter limits on dust from lead-based paint in older homes and child-care facilities and a goal to eliminate lead in aviation fuel.

The EPA enacted the first comprehensive regula6ons on lead in drinking water in 1991. Those have significantly helped reduce lead levels, but experts have said that they leY loopholes that keep lead levels too high and that lax enforcement allows cities to ignore the problem.

“We now know that having literally tens of millions of people being exposed to low levels of lead from things like their drinking water has a big impact on the population,” and the current lead rules don’t fix it, said Erik Olson, an expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council who challenged the original regula6ons back in the early 1990s. “We’re hoping this new rule will have a big impact.”

In addition, the EPA announced it wants to lower the level of lead at which utilities are forced to take ac6on. And federal officials are pushing cities to do a better job informing the public when elevated lead levels are found.

Another change involves how lead is measured. Utilities would need to collect more samples, and this alone could have significant consequences — when Michigan did something similar, the number of communities flagged for having high lead levels skyrocketed.

The public will have a chance to comment on the proposal, and the agency expects to publish a final version of the rule in the fall of 2024. There is then a waiting period before it goes into effect.

Unlike other contaminants, lead seeps into drinking water that’s already leY the treatment plant. The main remedy is to add chemicals to keep it from leaching out of pipes and plumbing fixtures. It’s hard. A home with dangerous lead levels can be next to a house with no lead exposure at all.

It will ultimately be up to utilities to decide whether to pay the full cost of replacing lead pipes, which is too expensive for many people to afford.

“We strongly, strongly encourage water utilities to pay for it,” Fox said.

Philadelphia’s Rademaekers said: “It’s likely that an accelerated service line replacement program will impact rates, but it is too early to understand the rate impacts at this time.”

The American Water Works Association, an industry group, said that it supports the agency’s pipe replacement goals but that there would be significant challenges. Costs are going up, it’s hard to secure homeowner permission to do pipe replacement work, and other contaminants like harmful “forever chemicals” called PFAS will also vie for financial resources and yime, the group said.

Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.