Paul Sancya / AP
Friday, Oct. 11, 2019 | 2 a.m.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed changes to the federal Lead and Copper Rule at a Las Vegas elementary school Thursday, including a new requirement for drinking water tests at schools nationwide.
Calling the Clark County School District a “role model” on the issue, EPA Pacific Southwest administrator Mike Stoker noted that the district has already been testing schools’ water fountains and faucets for elevated lead levels. That’s why he chose to announce the proposed rules at Dondero Elementary School in Spring Valley, where the district’s lead tests first began in 2017.
“I picked here because of the incredible things the school district has done and this school has done,” Stoker said.
The proposed changes to the Lead and Copper Rule would be the first major overhaul of the law since it was established in 1991, according to the EPA. The rule does not currently require water utilities to test for lead in commercial and public facilities such as schools. Only residential properties must be tested.
If made into law, the proposed new rules would mandate that all water utilities conduct lead-level tests at 20% of K-12 schools and child care facilities within their service areas annually. The results of those tests would be provided to the schools and the local or state health departments, according to an EPA reference guide on the proposed changes.
Lead is a known neurotoxin that can cause brain damage, behavioral health problems and death. Children and infants are among the most vulnerable to lead poisoning, and drinking water, typically due to corrosive pipes, is one of the most common routes for exposure.
Through funding from an EPA grant and in conjunction with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP), CCSD has already tested 318 out of 360 elementary, middle, high and special schools. The district has replaced faucets at three schools — Dondero, Stanford and Indian Springs elementary schools — where the water tested above 20 parts per billion in lead concentration, said Kimberly Krumland, director of risk and environmental services at CCSD. Schools that have not been tested are “brand new” and therefore pose little risk of lead contamination, she said.
The tests were not mandated by NDEP but were part of an optional testing program run by the division and made possible by a grant through the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN Act) in 2016, Krumland added.
In addition to pushing all school districts in the state and nationwide to follow CCSD’s footsteps, the EPA’s proposed changes to the Lead and Copper Rule would require licensed child care facilities to be tested for lead in drinking water as well.
Nevada is once again ahead of the curve on that issue, as NDEP has already applied for additional grant funding through the WIIN Act to conduct water tests at licensed day care centers across the state, said Jennifer Carr, deputy administrator for the division. If NDEP receives the funding, that effort will start in the first half of 2020 at approximately 600 day care centers statewide, Krumland said.
The new requirement for school water testing is just one of many proposed changes to the notoriously complex Lead and Copper Rule. Other proposed changes include the establishment of a new category of action, called a “trigger” threshold, for lead levels between 10 and 15 parts per billion, Stoker said. Once having identified water samples with those lead levels, water utilities would be required to conduct “tailored actions” to reduce lead.
This could include reevaluating a system’s current method of drinking water treatment or conducting a study on how to prevent corrosion, Stoker said. Utilities with water systems at those levels would also need to conduct outreach with homeowners and work with their state to set an annual goal for replacing the lead service line; what that annual goal would be is unclear.
The new rule would also require water utilities to notify customers within 24 hours when their water system tested above 15 ppb of lead; the current rule mandates notification within 30 days. In addition, water utilities would need to create a public inventory of all lead-contaminated service lines within the system, and they would be barred from taking actions to alter lead sample results, such as running a faucet to “flush out” contaminants prior to testing.
“By investing in thoughtful, preventive actions now, we can reduce our risk and better protect our families and our future,” Stoker said of the proposed changes.
Although school district officials praised the water testing requirement for schools and day care centers, other proposed modifications to the Lead and Copper Rule could actually put more people at risk of lead exposure, some environmental organizations say.
For years, the EPA has set 15 ppb as the threshold for the amount of lead permissible in drinking water, even though organizations like the World Health Organization and the EPA itself agree that no known level of lead exposure is safe. The new rules would not change this threshold, noted Erik Olson, senior director for health and food for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“It’s something we were hoping for them to fix, but they did not,” Olson said.
The proposal would also weaken rules for replacing service lines after they have been identified as lead-contaminated. Water systems that test above 15 ppb would need to replace just 3% of the known or potentially contaminated service lines annually — lower than the previous rule of 7% annual replacement.
That change could result in water utilities taking up to 33 years to replace an entire, lead-contaminated service line, compared to up to 13 years now. There are an estimated six to 10 million lead pipes in use nationwide, Olson said.
“They’re putting a happy face on a rule that really rolls back some of the fundamental protections,” he said.
As Stoker suggested, the proposal leaves many details about action taken after testing up to states, with the intention of not burdening small utilities, he said.
“Small systems that exceed the trigger and action levels would have flexibility with respect to treatment and lead service line replacement actions,” he said. “This will allow smaller systems to protect public health by taking the action that makes sense for their community.”
As a relatively young state, Nevada has few old water service lines at risk of lead contamination, so any changes to water pipe replacement requirements would have a limited impact on the state, Carr said.
The EPA is accepting comments on the proposal for the next 60 days. It is not known at this time when the proposal will be finalized or enacted, which could depend on how many comments the agency receives, Stoker said.