The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday plans to issue a long-awaited proposal aimed at improving how communities around the nation test for lead in drinking water and forcing quicker action when problems arise.

The overhaul comes nearly three decades after the federal government last updated its lead and copper rule — a regulation that has been criticized as complicated, poorly enforced and not tough enough when it comes to protecting Americans from a toxic metal that scientists say is unsafe at any level.

“It’s a national embarrassment,” Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped to expose the lead crises in Flint, Mich., and other cities, said of the rule, which has remained largely untouched since 1991.

The EPA’s revamped rule, which as been in the works since 2010, is meant to provide what the agency calls a “proactive and holistic approach” to more reliability identify elevated lead levels across 68,000 public water systems and to force utilities to tackle problems faster.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement that the effort is part of the administration’s “commitment to ensure all Americans have access to clean drinking water.”

“Our proposal would ensure that more water systems proactively take actions to prevent lead exposure, especially in schools, child care facilities, and the most at-risk communities,” Wheeler said in a statement.

However, while Thursday’s sprawling proposal seeks significant changes to the status quo, some environmental advocates said the agency’s overhaul does not appear to take the most important step: requiring the steady removal of the estimated 6 million or more lead service lines that remain underground throughout the nation.

“Everything else is small potatoes,” said Erik Olson, a senior director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “From a public health standpoint, that’s absolutely critical. There are going to be problems with lead contamination as long as you leave lead pipes in the ground.”

The new proposal does appear to address some of the widely acknowledged problems with the current rule.

The EPA says it will require utilities to create an inventory of lead service lines and to make those findings public. It also will require that all test samples be taken at homes with lead service lines, compared to only half of samples under the current rule. When a water utility finds elevated lead levels, it now will have to notify homeowners within 24 hours.

In an effort to close loopholes that critics say have long allowed communities to avoid reporting troubling test results, the EPA also plans to strengthen existing testing protocols. The agency no longer will allow practices such as removing aerators from faucets before testing, giving residents small-necked bottles and instructions to fill them slowly or “pre-flushing” water from lines before taking samples. Each of those tactics can temporarily lower lead levels and mask potential violations.

The EPA also wants to create a new “trigger level” of 10 parts per billion of lead in the water, a standard more stringent than the existing “action level” of 15 parts per billion. If a utility detects lead exceeding 10 parts per billion in enough taps, it could be forced to reevaluate the chemicals it uses to treat the water and must work with state officials on a plan to replace outdated pipes. (Smaller systems serving fewer than 10,000 people will have more flexibility in how to respond to elevated lead levels).

In addition, water utilities would be required to replaced their portion of a lead service line any time a resident decides to replace the lead pipe leading to his or her home. In communities that exceed the 15 parts per billion federal action level, officials would be required to replace a minimum of three percent of lead service lines annually.

That’s actually a more lenient standard than the current minimum requirement of seven percent. EPA officials have said that while lead line replacements are the ultimate goal, the new rule is also aimed at addressing water problems in the short term, as well. But the chance is unlikely to sit well with some public health advocates.

“That’s just staggering to me,” said Olson, noting that the amended requirement could significantly extend the time it takes to rid a community of its lead pipes. “It’s exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.”

Finally, local utilities will be required for the first time to test for lead in child-care facilities and schools, many of which until now have faced virtually no state or federal laws that require testing.

While lead exposures have fallen since Congress banned the use of lead pipes in 1986, the toxic metal remains in plumbing fixtures around the country, as well as in millions of underground pipes. Replacing all those pipes could cost as much as $80 billion, according to one EPA estimate, an expense that could fall largely to homeowners and cash-strapped cities.

The EPA was already years into revamping the much criticized lead and copper rule when the water crisis in Flint first gained national attention in 2015. The episode exposed thousands of young children in the city to alarming levels of lead, which can cause irreversible cognitive damage and other health problems, and it put a public spotlight on officials at every level who had failed to prevent the catastrophe.

“It clearly needs to be strengthened,” then-EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said during a 2016 hearing, even as she insisted that the Flint debacle stemmed from Michigan’s failure to enforce the existing law.

Environmental activists have long argued that the federal rules are too easy to evade and too seldom enforced, and that such shortcomings have contributed to water crises in the District, Flint and more recently in Newark Some state and local officials in charge of implementing the rules have called the requirements too complex and unwieldy. The water industry and individual communities have fretted over the associated costs.

The new proposal does not go as far as some environmental and public health advocates would like. For example, it does not set one enforceable standard for lead, known as a “maximum contaminant level,” as it does for other harmful substances in water. Nor does it require the estimated 6 million lead service lines that remain underground around the country be replaced in the short term.

The new rule, which will be open for comment for 60 days, also does not lower the agency’s “action level” for lead, which remains more lenient than new regulations put in place by Michigan in 2018. There, lawmakers plan to reduce the threshold to 12 parts per billion and require that all lead service lines in the state be replaced by 2040, unless a utility can demonstrate that it needs longerto implement the rule.

Edwards, who has seen water crisis after water crisis endanger residents and erode public trust in government, said none of the EPA’s proposed changes will matter unless public officials do what they haven’t always done in the past.

“Enforcement,” he said, “is everything.”

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