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Why the election could slow down plans to replace lead pipes

With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest — and toughest — plan to minimize the risk of Americans drinking lead-contaminated water looming, the debate over whether regulations go too far or not nearly far enough is reaching a tipping point.

Although lead was banned from new water pipes in 1986, it is estimated that more than 9 million such pipes still supply drinking water to homes and businesses across the country. Under the EPA’s proposal to improve lead and copper regulations, water utilities would be required to replace all pipes containing lead within 10 years.

The Biden administration’s proposal builds on several rules issued in the final days of Trump’s administration that provided a deadline of up to 30 years for replacing utility lines that only took effect when lead levels were above 15 parts per million. The new proposal, which would largely replace the Trump rules, calls for stricter oversight, improved public education and a 10-year requirement to replace pipes regardless of lead levels.

There is an October deadline for the new rules to be passed, otherwise the Trump administration’s less stringent rules will take effect. And to complicate matters further, the election results in November could raise the question of whose rules the country must follow.

While many cities and states have already begun replacing their lead pipes, some utilities and agencies say the 10-year timeframe is unworkable and too expensive. They say it would be difficult for water utilities to comply while dealing with new EPA limits on five PFAS contaminants, known as “forever chemicals,” and broken pipes, among other issues.

“Nobody is going to tell you that putting lead in water is a good idea,” said Steve Via, director of federal relations for the American Water Works Association, the nation’s largest water utility industry nonprofit. “The question is: How urgent is the issue and at what pace does it need to be addressed?”

Already, 15 Republican attorneys general argue that the proposed regulations violate states’ rights and seek “speculative” gains. On the other hand, 14 Democratic attorneys general said the EPA should find more ways to ensure that pipes in low-income areas are replaced quickly.

Of course, no amount of lead can be considered safe for consumption. Lead is a neurotoxin known to cause irreversible long-term organ damage, lower IQs, higher risk of miscarriage, asthma, cardiovascular disease, impotence and increased blood pressure.

Public health officials say the societal costs – in health care, social services and lost productivity – far exceed the cost of replacement. They say corrosion controls that limit lead exposure can and do fail, pointing to human and systemic errors that sparked the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where thousands of people were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water.

“That’s the problem with lead pipes: They unexpectedly release lead into drinking water,” said Roya Alkafaji, who leads an initiative to reduce lead contamination in water at the Environmental Defense Fund, a national advocacy group. “I don’t think putting off the problem is the solution.”

According to a 2023 analysis by Ronnie Levin, a lecturer at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, the benefits of replacing lead pipes outweigh the costs by a ratio of 35:1.

Using the EPA’s estimated $335 million annual cost of the Trump rules, which include water sampling, corrosion control measures, inventorying and replacing lead pipes and education, Levin’s analysis shows that $9 billion in annual health costs could be avoided. Another $2 billion could be saved through improved infrastructure and reduced corrosion damage to equipment. The wide range of health-related costs has previously been ignored in analyses of the true costs of leaving lead pipes in place, said Levin, a former EPA scientist.

Estimates put the cost of replacing the nation’s lead pipes at between $46 billion and over $90 billion, well over the $15 billion provided in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The Biden administration has called these funds a down payment, 49 percent of which will be grants or repayment loans allocated based on the estimated number of lead pipes per state. Other funding programs may also be used.

Replacement costs vary widely by location, with average costs ranging from $4,700 per service line (EPA’s 2019 estimate) to $12,500 (Via’s utility industry group assessment).

Carolyn Berndt, director of sustainability at the National League of Cities, said funding issues could make the EPA’s 10-year timeline unrealistic. While her organization encourages local leaders to raise as much funding as possible, the funds available will not be enough to cover replacement costs in some communities — especially in poorer areas that often have older infrastructure and more lead pipes.

Some direct costs could be incurred by homeowners, such as replacing the pipes that connect their water meters to their homes. And there could be indirect costs to people if utilities increase their customer rates to offset the costs.

Still, some communities, like Olathe, Kansas, are finding ways to move forward with a patchwork of funding. Of the 37,000 utility lines there, 266 were found to be galvanized pipes serving the downtown area, where many of the city’s most vulnerable residents live. The coating on galvanized pipes typically contains lead.

Workers will replace the lines at no cost to property owners in the city of 147,000 outside Kansas City, said Megan Spence, who is overseeing the city project. The cost is expected to be about $2.3 million, funded by a loan from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and about $1.2 million in federal infrastructure funds. About $500,000 is included for turf restoration.

“We really see this as an opportunity and another way to protect public health,” Spence said. “There should be no lead pipes in drinking water distribution systems.”

Elsewhere, Republicans are pushing for pipe replacement, such as Senator Eric Koch of Indiana, despite past opposition to federal regulations in conservative states. He said lawmakers should consider the damage – and long-term costs – of delaying lead removal from drinking water.

In March, Indiana’s Republican governor, Eric Holcomb, signed a unanimously approved bill, authored by Koch, that would reduce the cost of replacing customer-owned lead service lines. The law requires landlords to participate in a state-approved program to have their lead service lines removed by their water company for free, or they must pay for the replacement themselves.

Koch said the cost to replace customer-owned utility lines is about $8,000, although the cost could be significantly higher for some properties. But if work begins now, Koch said, utilities can avoid price inflation and ultimately install the lines more cost-effectively.

Meanwhile, time is running out to publish the Biden administration’s proposed rules in the Federal Register. Water utilities will have to comply with the Trump rules starting Oct. 16 unless the EPA publishes the newer rules by then, said Erik Olson, senior strategic director of the National Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. It’s not yet known what the Supreme Court’s June 28 ruling on the agency’s rulemaking, known as the “Chevron deference” decision, will mean for both sets of rules.

A deadline is also approaching for the 60-day “look-back period” under the Congressional Review Act, within which a regulation can be repealed. If the November election results in a change of power in Congress or the White House, the Biden administration’s rules could be repealed under a strengthened Congress before new officials are sworn in in January.

“Depending on how the election turns out, it could be a hot topic,” said Tom Neltner, national director of the advocacy group Unleaded Kids.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth coverage of health issues and is one of the core operating programs of KFF – an independent source of health policy research, polling and journalism. Learn more about KFF.