The decision made by the city of Flint, Michigan in April of 2014 to transition the municipal water source from the Detroit-supplied Lake Huron water to the Flint River marked the inception of a devastating chain of events.
Unbeknownst to residents, this seemingly innocuous change catalyzed a catastrophic issue as aging water distribution pipes began to corrode, unleashing a torrent of lead and other contaminants into the very lifeblood of the city … its municipal drinking water supply.
What followed was not just a crisis of tainted water but a harrowing tale of negligence, public health disasters and a community grappling with the profound consequences of lead exposure.
The proposed strengthening of the Lead and Copper Rule aims to protect children and adults across the country from the dangers of lead exposure in drinking water by replacing lead service links over the next decade.
If you’re a community official, urban or regional planner, or a contractor who performs excavation and utility work, it’s important to stay on top of this evolving regulation. If the rule is finalized, it could mean your community must take action.
If you’re a contracting business, you should start planning for the work that could be coming your way. That preparation should include having all aspects of lead pipe removal ready, including disposal.
How Would The Lead And Copper Rule Strengthen?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced a proposal to strengthen its Lead and Copper Rule requiring water systems to replace lead service lines within 10 years. The proposal is part of the federal government’s goal of removing 100% of lead pipes.
The presence of lead in drinking water poses a severe threat to human health, particularly impacting vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women. Exposure to lead, even in trace amounts, can lead to detrimental health effects such as developmental delays, learning disabilities, behavioral issues and impaired cognitive function in children.
Long-term exposure to lead-contaminated water can cause damage to the kidneys, nervous system and red blood cells in adults. Lead toxicity can even result in reproductive problems and increased blood pressure.
Central to the Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan, the Lead and Copper Rule focuses on:
- Achieving 100% lead pipe replacement within 10 years
- Locating legacy lead pipes
- Improving tap sampling
- Lowering the lead action level (the concentration of lead in drinking water that triggers regulatory actions to mitigate exposure)
- Strengthening protections to reduce exposure
The proposal also requires water systems to communicate with consumers about lead service lines and any plans associated with replacing them.
How Would The Proposed Changes Impact Communities?
Communities across the country have already begun removing lead pipes. In Newark, New Jersey, the city removed 23,000 lead pipes in under three years. Yet many lead pipes that carry drinking water still exist across the United States.
An analysis in 2021 by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that nearly 186 million Americans drank water from systems that detected lead levels exceeding 1 part per billion (ppb). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that to protect children, lead levels in water should be below 1 ppb.
An additional NRDC analysis found there are as many as 12 million lead service lines in the United States. The analysis estimated that in California, there are as many as 65,000 lead service lines.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $50 billion to support upgrades to the United States's drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. Nearly $15 billion is dedicated to lead service line replacement. According to the EPA, nearly $11.7 billion of general Drinking Water State Revolving Funds can also be used for lead service line replacement. So far, the EPA has awarded more than $3.5 billion in funding for lead service line replacement.
What Happens Next?
According to the EPA, once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, the EPA will accept comments for 60 days. There is also a virtual public hearing planned for January 16, 2024.
In the meantime, it’s important for communities to begin preparing for how the proposed strengthening of the Lead and Copper Rule may impact them over the next 10 years. Contractors who specialize in the removal or remediation of lead contamination should also begin preparing for the possibility of working with government bodies to meet the requirements of these evolving regulations.
An important aspect of that is lining up disposal services that can safely remove and transport lead-contaminated pipes, and possibly any lead contamination in soil that has occurred in the area. Especially in older pipes, leaching can occur from failed joints or corrosion in the pipes.
How Can A Hazardous Waste Disposal Company Help?
Engaging with experienced hazardous waste disposal companies can prove invaluable when addressing the complex task of lead pipe removal and disposal. These specialized companies have the expertise and resources crucial for navigating the intricate process of managing hazardous materials, such as lead-contaminated pipes, in compliance with environmental regulations.
One of the primary advantages is their knowledge of appropriate landfills equipped to accept and safely manage this type of waste. Once the updates to these federal regulations are approved, it’s doubtful that lead pipes can simply be discarded in the same place as everyday trash since careful consideration will be needed to avoid further water or soil contamination.
Reputable disposal companies offer comprehensive services beyond transportation and disposal. For example, the best companies will conduct sampling and profiling of the materials to be disposed of, ensuring accurate characterization and handling in accordance with regulatory standards.
From the initial assessment to the final disposal, these experts guide communities and contractors through each step, providing essential guidance and support throughout the entire process.
When evaluating a disposal company to work with, make sure that you:
- Only work with certified companies that are registered with the DTSC
- Avoid hazardous waste brokers that act as unqualified middlemen and drive up costs
- Check to ensure a company has experience in handling items that contain lead
As you continue to monitor how this proposed EPA rule could impact your community or business, keep in mind that hazardous waste disposal companies can play a pivotal role in ensuring compliance with these evolving regulations and safeguarding public health by professionally managing the disposal of hazardous lead materials.