An Opportunity to Center Equity in New EPA Lead and Copper Pipe Rule  

By Priya Pandey

Lead is a potent neurotoxin and is particularly dangerous for the brain development of infants and young children. Health experts agree that any amount of lead exposure is unsafe for human health. Yet more than nine million homes in the United States still receive their water through lead service lines. In November 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a new rule that mandates that every lead pipe in America be replaced. This new proposal represents the culmination of a tireless half-century of advocacy to get the EPA to meaningfully address the crisis of lead-contaminated drinking water. The Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) was first introduced in 1991 in response to an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974. The LCR was created to reduce lead levels in tap water caused by corrosion and to prohibit new installations and sales of lead pipes for drinking water use, but it didn’t  require pipes to be replaced. It is abundantly clear that the public has not been adequately served and protected by these regulations,  from Flint, Michigan, to Newark, New Jersey. 

Replacing lead pipes is an equity issue, as lead exposure does not impact all households evenly. In 2021 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study indicating that non-Hispanic Black children were at particular risk, as well as children living in areas with higher-than-average poverty rates. But lead pipes remain disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color, in part due to decades of federal home ownership policies that have concentrated families of color in low-income communities. People in these communities are more likely to live in older housing where lead pipelines can still be found. For example, a 2020 Illinois study found that 65 percent of Black residents lived in areas that contained 94 percent of the state’s lead service lines, while only 30 percent of white residents lived in those communities. Unlike their higher-income counterparts, residents in these communities cannot afford to replace the lines themselves; and in most places, landlords are not required to replace lead service lines or even notify renters about them. These factors have combined to create lasting disproportionate exposures to environmental health hazards for families with low incomes and people of color.  

The federal government has attempted to improve the country’s clean drinking water infrastructure by providing funds directly to state governments through programs such as the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. However, the program has fallen short. Systemic racism and disinvestment haves worsened environmental crises in certain communities, and many communities have had to rely on local sources of revenue to fund improvements in infrastructure. Federal programs and state governments have also failed to distribute funds equitably, with studies showing that white communities are more likely to receive federal funding than communities of color. In Jackson, Mississippi, a majority Black city, the water system collapsed as a result of freezing temperatures, leaving more than 150,000 residents without access to clean water. The state, which had received more than $75 million in federal funds for water projects, did not disburse those funds to localities like Jackson.    

The proposed upgrades to the LCR represent a major advancement in ensuring that households across the country have access to safe and clean drinking water and are protected from lead contamination by requiring water systems to replace all lead service pipes within the next 10 years. The proposal will also ban partial replacements of lead service lines, improve lead contamination testing methods, mandate reporting on the inventory of lead pipelines from water management systems, and include requirements for water utility companies to reach out to customers to inform them of potential contamination and provide them with a filter. This work will be primarily funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provides $50 billion to support upgrades to the nation’s drinking water and wastewater  infrastructure, including $15 billion dedicated to lead service line replacement.  

Unfortunately, the proposed rule will allow cities with more than 100,000 lead service lines to complete the replacements over a longer period of time. In a city like Chicago, it could potentially take up to 50 years to complete all of the replacements. This means that the problems associated with lead pipes will  persist across generations in communities that have already been dealing with the consequences of lead contamination in their water. In addition, the rule doesn’t require that water management systems cover the cost of the lead pipe replacement. This is particularly concerning considering that many low- and middle-income households are unable to afford the full cost, and water systems are not held responsible for replacing pipes if the homeowner is unable or unwilling to pay.  As a result, this new rule may only benefit wealthier households.   

It is clear that there is much room for improvement to ensure that the rule is enforced in an equitable and timely manner. Therefore, CLASP will be submitting comments on the rule, asking the EPA to mandate that water systems pay for the pipe replacement so communities that have long been  affected by this environmental racism can finally see some relief. We urge others who care about racial and economic justice to join us in commenting by February 5.