Lead and Copper Rule

 

Overview

The Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) regulates the levels of lead and copper contaminants that can be present in drinking water sources before action must be taken by systems and the public. Lead and copper exposure can cause serious health problems, making the elimination of contaminants a public health priority. Contaminants mostly enter water sources through pipes and other plumbing materials. Since the implementation of the LCR, the number of large drinking water systems exceeding LCR standards have decreased by 90%. While this is significant progress, some environmentalists emphasize that no amount of lead in drinking water or lead pipes is healthy nor acceptable. However, unlike other drinking water standards, the LCR is not solely based on health; it is based on feasibility.

The LCR has set the lead action level at 15 ppb, and the copper action level at 1.3 ppm. If concentrations above these are present in 10% or more of customers’ taps, the system must respond with measures to control corrosion. It also requires that the public be informed of lead concentrations above 15 ppb, and for water systems to replace 7% of their lead service lines (LSLs) each year, causing a 14-year time frame for full line replacement after action levels are superseded.

History

First enacted in 1991, the LCR was a major step in eliminating harmful contaminants from drinking water. Prior to the LCR, the maximum concentration of lead and copper contaminants in drinking water was 50 ppb; this was replaced by action level concentrations that require both public and system response if superseded. A number of smaller revisions have taken place, most notably in 2007 when it was revised to enhance customer awareness, treatment, lead service line replacement, and monitoring implementation. However, despite minor changes, the LCR has remained mostly static throughout its 30-year lifetime.

Published in January 2021, the first major revision of the LCR was set to take effect in March of 2021. However, the new rule has been delayed twice and is currently under review by Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Currently the Lead and Copper Rule Revision (LCRR) enacts the following changes with more possibly subject to EPA decisions. The LCRR lowers the lead action level to 10 ppb for outreach, treatment and monitoring, while keeping 15 ppb as the concentration to trigger lead service line replacement. While the previous LCR does not specify collection requirements for schools and childcare facilities, the LCRR requires sampling from at least 20% of elementary schools and childcare facilities. The LCRR also changes the notification period from 30 days to 24 hours in order to increase public outreach and transparency. However, the revised rule changes the time period of full lead service line replacement to 33 years from 14 years. This revision has drawn criticism from environmentalists and public health advocates who say that the longer lead service lines are in the ground, the more public health risk they pose while others praise the increase in transparency and public awareness.

Who Does it Impact?

The Lead and Copper Rule applies to every public water system in the United States. It does not apply to private water companies. The EPA estimated that implementing the new rule would cost US$839 million per year compared to US$466 million per year based on the prior rule. Some of this additional cost could be offset by federal funding programs including Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act and Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN). 

Market Effect

Lead Service Lines are more prominent in older cities due to their use being banned by Congress in 1986. In most places, lead pipes stopped being used in the 1950’s; however, some states, like Illinois, continued their widespread use until the ban. This causes the LCR to have a greater impact on cities that have more LSLs. In total, the American Water Works Association estimated that there are 6.1 million LSLs across the country. Each line replacement costs utilities from US$250 to US$3,200 and the homeowner from US$450 to US$10,000. While it is not immediately necessary to replace every LSL, as corrosion control treatments prevent lead from entering the water, the potential price tag for replacements alone is in the billions. Because of this, it is likely that the revised LCR will have the greatest impact on communities with more LSLs.

Lead Service Line National Estimate

Source: Bluefield Research, American Water Works

The number of LSLs is heavily concentrated in the Midwest, as demonstrated by the highly publicized lead exposure events in Flint, Michigan and other midwestern cities. This causes an increased probability of lead exceeding action levels and costing the system for treatment, LSL replacement, and outreach. Therefore, any new LCR would have a significant impact on the Midwest compared to other areas of the country.