The Biden administration is proposing new restrictions that would require the removal of virtually all lead water pipes across the country in an effort to prevent another public health catastrophe like the one that came to define Flint, Mich.
The proposal on Thursday from the Environmental Protection Agency would impose the strictest limits on lead in drinking water since federal standards were first set 30 years ago. It would affect about nine million pipes that snake throughout communities across the country.
“This is the strongest lead rule that the nation has ever seen,” Radhika Fox, the E.P.A.’s assistant administrator for water, said in an interview. “This is historic progress.”
Digging up and replacing lead pipes from coast to coast is no small undertaking. The E.P.A. estimates the price at $20 billion to $30 billion over the course of a decade. The rule would require the nation’s utilities — and most likely their ratepayers — to absorb most of that cost, but $15 billion is available from the 2021 infrastructure law to help them pay for it.
Tom Dobbins, the chief executive of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, said his members would need both technical help and more financial assistance from the federal government to comply with the proposed regulations. He urged the E.P.A. to “focus on providing drinking water systems with the resources and tools necessary to achieve this ambitious goal, and working toward eliminating the real barriers that exist for many utilities.”
In a statement, the association said it had repeatedly called attention to a long list of obstacles that make it difficult to replace lead pipes, including rising costs, supply chain problems, labor shortages and incomplete or missing building records.
Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system and the brain. It poses a particular danger to infants and children and can impair their cognitive development, cause behavioral disorders and lead to lower I.Q.s. From the nation’s earliest days, lead was used to make pipes to carry water to homes and businesses. But when plumbing corrodes, lead can leach into drinking water.
The problem drew national attention in 2014 in Flint, when a change in the water source and inadequate treatment and testing caused significant lead contamination. Lead and Legionella bacteria leached into the tap water of about 100,000 residents between 2014 and 2015.
Lead levels in drinking water also soared in 2019 in Newark, where Yvette Jordan is a high school teacher. “Forty percent of our students are special needs,” she said. “All of these effects we see in our classroom every single day.”
The E.P.A. estimates that its proposal would generate $9.8 billion to $34.8 billion in economic benefits each year, in the form of less cognitive impairment and fewer health disorders, especially in children.
The proposal would not eliminate the amount of lead permitted in drinking water. Instead, the Biden administration wants to lower the allowable amount to 10 parts per billion from the current 15 parts per billion.
That’s disappointing to many public health advocates, who have called for a standard between zero and five parts per billion. Scientists agree there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.
“We have failed generations of children by not eliminating lead,” said Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Michigan pediatrician whose research helped to exposed the 2014 Flint water crisis. “When you have a poison that has no safe levels at all in our drinking water, it makes it impossible to make sure that the future of our nation is successful.”
She said she was frustrated that the allowable level wasn’t closer to zero but said lowering it would be “a good thing.”
“To finally have a rule that mandates the removal of lead pipes is exactly what the government should be doing,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said.
The proposal, which would update regulations under the 1991 Safe Drinking Water Act, is the most forceful part of a multifront push by President Biden to stop lead exposure. Mr. Biden has made it a central part of his administration’s effort to address racial health disparities in the United States. Children in communities of color and in low-income urban areas are more likely to be exposed to lead from paint and aging water systems than their counterparts in areas with new housing and infrastructure.
“The vice president and I made a commitment to replace every single service line in every part of the country over the next decade, by using — not most, every — we’re using every tool at our disposal to get it done,” Mr. Biden said in a February speech about his lead abatement initiatives.
In the wake of the Flint crisis, the Trump administration required schools and day care centers to test for lead in their drinking water and ordered water utilities to conduct inventories of their lead service pipes and publicly report their locations. But the administration also doubled, to 30 years, the amount of time that utilities could take to replace lead pipes.
Under the E.P.A.’s proposal announced Thursday, utilities must eliminate lead pipes over the next 10 years at a pace of 10 percent each year. They would also be required to create inventories of all their lead pipes.
While the rule would compel water utilities to bear the cost of the undertaking, it has a major loophole: It does not require them to pay for the replacement of the smaller portion of lead lines that are on private property.
Federal officials made access to the $15 billion in the infrastructure law for lead pipe replacement conditional on utilities’ replacing the entire lead water pipe, including portions on private property.
Ms. Fox said that states and municipalities had the authority to compel local water utilities to absorb the entire cost of replacing lead pipes, including those on private property. She pointed to Newark and Washington, D.C., as cities that had already done so. In 2004, a jump in lead levels in the water in Washington was followed by a fourfold increase in the levels of lead in the blood of some children there.
The E.P.A. will accept public comments on the proposal for 60 days and could still make changes to it before making it final sometime next year.