New E.P.A. Lead Standards Would Slow Replacement of Dangerous Pipes

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Thursday proposed new regulations on lead and copper in drinking water, updating a nearly 30-year-old rule that may have contributed to the lead-tainted water crisis in Flint, Mich., that began in 2015.

The draft plan, announced by the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Andrew Wheeler, at a news conference in Green Bay, Wis., includes some provisions designed to strengthen oversight of lead in drinking water. But it skips a pricey safety proposal advocated by public health groups and water utilities: the immediate replacement of six million lead pipes that connect homes to main water pipes. The proposed new rule would also more than double the amount of time allotted to replace lead pipes in water systems that contain high levels of lead.

Mr. Wheeler framed the new regulations as a major step forward in protecting water supplies.

“The water sector has known for years and years that the regulations governing lead and copper in our water need to be improved, but administration after administration has failed to get it done,” Mr. Wheeler said, noting that the standards were last updated in 1991. “We are delivering on the president’s commitment that all Americans have access to clean and safe drinking water.”

Although the new proposal would extend the timetable for replacing lead pipes, it would include new requirements that schools and day care centers be tested for lead, and, if elevated lead levels are found, customers would have to be told within 24 hours, not the current standard of 30 days. It would also require water utilities to conduct inventories of their lead service pipes and publicly report their locations.

Environmental activists said those moves forward would not make up for the relaxation of standards in other areas.

The slower timetable for the replacement of lead pipes is a “huge weakening change that will swallow up the few small improvements in the proposal,” wrote Erik D. Olson, an expert in drinking water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, in an email.

The new rule proposes changing a key element of the current rules, which requires that a water system that is found to contain lead levels higher than 15 parts per billion must replace 7 percent of its lead service lines each year for as long as the lead levels exceed that measurement. The new proposal would instead require water systems with those lead levels to replace 3 percent of lead service lines each year.

Mr. Olson’s group estimated that the loosening of standards could extend the length of time needed to replace dangerous lead water pipes from 13 years to 33 years.

“It means that another generation of American kids will be exposed to dangerous levels of lead from their drinking water,” he said.

President Trump has made the rollback of environmental regulations a hallmark of his administration, with initiatives to weaken or erase dozens of E.P.A. regulations on climate change, chemical pollution and water quality. At the same time, he has also called attention to the concerns about lead in water that were ignited by the discovery of high levels of lead and other contaminants that poisoned Flint’s drinking water for more than a year. He also frequently emphasizes his desire to promote “crystal-clear water.”

During a 2016 campaign stop in Flint, Mr. Trump said: “It used to be, cars were made in Flint and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now, the cars are made in Mexico and you cannot drink the water in Flint.”

“We shouldn’t allow it to happen,” he said.

Mr. Trump’s first E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, announced that he would prioritize removing lead from water, saying that the agency was declaring “war on lead.” Mr. Pruitt stepped down amid a corruption scandal in 2017.

A 2018 report from the E.P.A.’s Office of Inspector General said management weaknesses had hobbled the agency’s response to the Flint crisis and that federal officials should have taken stronger action to correct repeated blunders by state regulators.

Mr. Pruitt’s successor, Mr. Wheeler, announcing the plan, highlighted it as part of Children’s Health Month, which falls in October.

But for Flint advocates, it fell well short.

“We need urgent action and bold investments to rebuild America’s water infrastructure, not weakened policies that fail to protect the health and safety of our citizens,” said Representative Dan Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, who was born and raised in Flint and represents it in Congress. “The Flint water crisis should have taught policymakers at all levels of government that we must get serious about removing lead from our water systems. Yet the president’s policies have continuously put special corporate interests ahead of public health.”

The draft plan will be open for public comment for 60 days, and Mr. Wheeler said that he expected to complete the final plan next summer.