December 7, 2023

EPA Proposal Would Require Replacement of All Lead Pipes by 2034

A proposed rule published yesterday in the Federal Register would require nearly all water systems in the United States to replace lead service lines within 10 years. EPA, which proposed the rule, estimates there are approximately 9.2 million lead service lines in use across the nation. The rule would also lower the action level for lead in water from 15 µg/L to 10 µg/L.

The American Water Works Association issued a statement strongly supporting the EPA rule, although AWWA noted the cost of replacing a single lead service line is more than $10,000 and that the total cost of the rule could exceed $90 billion. To support the rule, $15 billion is appropriated for lead service line replacement by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

If finalized, the rule would put into motion on a grand scale the kind of work activities that cities like Newark, New Jersey, and Green Bay, Wisconsin, have experienced from local programs targeting the removal of lead service lines. Newark launched its effort in 2019, three years after elevated levels of lead were found in the water at 30 city schools. According to CDM Smith, the firm that managed Newark’s replacement program, at one point work crews in the city were replacing as many as 100 lines per day. Even with progress slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, all 23,000 of Newark’s lead service lines were replaced within three years.

A NIOSH health hazard evaluation published in 2021 discusses lead exposures to workers charged with replacing lead service lines. NIOSH personnel observed two crews of four workers employed by a municipal water department. Workers typically attached a new copper line to the existing lead line and extracted it, pulling the new one into place. In some cases, removal required workers to blow a steel cable through the existing line with compressed air, resulting in discharges of large amounts of aerosolized lead. NIOSH found lead on employees’ hands, inside work gloves, in work trucks, and in workers’ locker rooms. Some workers wore their respirators incorrectly.

A separate NIOSH “workplace solutions” document published this year highlights ways to reduce workers’ lead exposure during water service line removal and replacement. A few tasks that can result in lead exposures to workers include cutting or handling lead pipes, excavating lead-contaminated soil, and changing filters on vacuums used to collect lead dust.

Comments on the proposed rule are due Feb. 5, 2024.

For more information, read the proposed rule in the Federal Register and the EPA press release. Additional information is available from the EPA website.

Related: Read about federal and state workplace lead regulations in the December 2023 Synergist.