Review of the Updated Lead and Copper Rule for Drinking Water (Public Water Systems)

Brian Oram, Licensed Professional Geologist
Featured Water Professional

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the proposed Lead and Copper Rule Improvements (LCRI) in November 2023. The proposed LCRI stated that its primary objective is to protect children and adults from the health effects of lead in drinking water and this effort was going to use existing approaches and science.  This all sounded great, but as I read what was being proposed for this updated rule, it appeared clear that ideology was getting ahead of facts and science and we are forgetting the primary exposure route of lead in children is not lead in drinking water, but lead in the environment (dust, paint, food, and consumer goods).  

The Original Proposal (November 2023)

The following is a partial list of objectives of the original proposed changes to the Lead and Copper Rule:  

1. “Achieving 100% Lead Pipe Replacement within 10 years. When lead service lines are present, they represent the greatest source of lead exposure in drinking water. The proposed LCRI would require the vast majority of water systems to replace lead service lines within 10 years.”   

KnowYourH2O Comment: But a significant number of the lead service lines are owned by the owner of the building and located on private property and are not the responsibility of the water authority.

2. Locate lead service lines and complete an initial survey by October 2024.

3. Change the sampling protocol, because the previous protocol was said to bias the data. The suggested protocol would be to collect first liter and fifth liter samples at sites with lead service lines and use the higher of the two values when determining compliance with the rule.

KnowYourH2O Questions: Does not the first liter sample suggest the problem is in the home or building and the fifth a possible service line issue which in most cases is the responsibility of the building owner and not the actual water or water being provided to the home? Therefore, is it possible the proposed change may also be creating a bias in the data and was the original sampling really creating a bias?

4. Lowering the lead action level - EPA is proposing to lower the lead action level from 15 ppb (µg/L) to 10 ppb (µg/L).

5. Strengthening Protections to Reduce Exposure - Water systems with multiple lead action level exceedances would be required to conduct additional outreach to consumers and make filters certified to reduce lead available to all consumers. The filters must be certified to reduce lead.

KnowYourH2O Questions:  Does this not suggest that the EPA may be looking at the use of whole-house filters or point-of-use filters to meet lead action levels at the point of use? If property owners can not afford or care to replace their own lead service lines, will they care enough to maintain these systems or will this be the responsibility of the Authority or the public at large using taxpayer funds?

The History - The Final Rule - In December 2020, the EPA published the first major update to the Lead and Copper rule.

The original version of the final rule had an effective date of January 15, 2021.  The following  is a fact sheet for the lead and copper rule and the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations: Lead and Copper Rule Revisions.  The effective date was delayed a number of times and the current delayed effective date is December 16, 2021, but the latest published compliance date for the final rule is October 16, 2024.

In general, the improvements under the new rule included the following:

• Uses science-based testing protocols to find more sources of lead in drinking water; 

• Establishes an additional lead trigger level (TL) that would result in the implementation of an approved mitigation plan using a shorter or tighter time frame; 

• Promotes the complete replacement of lead service lines;

• Requires testing of schools and child care facilities; and 

• Requires public water systems to make information about the presence of lead service lines public information. 

KnowYourH2O Comment: Again, my concern is government overreach regarding private property and the slippery slope. What's next? –  government publicly listing houses with lead paint, termites, asbestos, and radon?

Building on the Past to Move to the Future

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the proposed Lead and Copper Rule Improvements (LCRI) in November 2023. This revision to the rules relies on both the 2021 Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCRR) and the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). 

A summary of the proposed changes to the Lead and Copper Rule Improvements (LCRI):

1. The utilities must develop a lead service line (LSL) inventory and develop a lead service line (LSL) removal program.  A plan needs to be in place and  the plan must be to begin  replacing service lines as soon as lead sample results are above the trigger or action level.  (Like/ Good) 

 KnowYourH2O Note: A trigger level is lower in concentration than an action level and can be used by the system operator or user MAY decide to take some additional action; whereas,  an action level is a concentration that is put in place either by management or a regulating authority so if this concentration or level is reached some specific action MUST take place.  

2. If a customer-owned portion of the LSL is replaced, the utility-owned portion should be replaced if it is made of lead. Partial replacement of lines will not be permitted. (Like/Good)

3. Service lines that must be replaced in full include lead service lines and galvanized iron pipes which have or have had lead pipe installed upstream. (Like/ Good)

KnowYourH2O Comment: This may get rid of some of the accumulated scale or chemical coatings that may contain lead and other metals in the chemical film or coating and this is a legacy issue associated with using a sequestration approach to managing manganese and corrosion.

4. The new Lead and Copper Rule requires that community water systems test for lead in drinking water in elementary schools and child care facilities that they serve.

 KnowYourH2O Comment: Concerning – First, not all of these are publicly owned buildings and the main problem may be the plumbing system and not the drinking water quality provided by the Authority. Secondly, the level of lead and also the sampling may be vulnerable to bias associated with stagnant water conditions, installation issues, poor engineering design, and lack of historic maintenance that may be highly variable and distinct for each system. Therefore, a one size fits all approach may not work.

5. The 15 ppb (µg/L) or 0.015 mg/L lead action level (AL) (90th percentile lead level) remains unchanged, and there is a requirement for public notification within 24 hours if a system exceeds the lead action level. The action level for copper remains at 1.3 mg/L (1300 ppb).

KnowYourH2O Comment: OK - but could be better
KnowYourH2O Comment: Even though copper has an aesthetic advisory level or secondary drinking water limit of 1 mg/L (1000 ppb), they did not reduce the trigger level for copper to 1 mg/L or, alternatively to 0.65 mg/L which is half of the primary drinking water standard of 1.3 mg/L.  Also, there was no mention of additional monitoring for other contaminants, such as aluminum and zinc, that are related to chemical corrosion and microbiologically-induced corrosion.

6. Under the new rule, water systems will be required to fully replace at least 3 percent of lead service lines each year when 10 percent of sampling results are above 15 ppb for lead.

7. The system would need to implement new corrosion control treatment requirements when a “trigger level” (TL) of 10 ppb (a 90th percentile lead level) is encountered.