House members from both parties Wednesday pushed to fast-track new federal regulations that could require replacing lead pipes that deliver drinking water, one of the most far-reaching recommendations to emerge from the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
The Environmental Protection Agency has said it will present final revisions to its Lead and Copper Rule sometime in 2017, marking the first time that regulations on lead sampling in drinking water, corrosion control and lead line replacements have been updated in over 20 years.
But at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans agreed that the EPA needs to act more quickly.
“If there is one message you can send up the chain, it’s we would like to have something maybe earlier than 1-17,” Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said to an EPA official who testified at the hearing. “That’s a long way off.”
“What’s happening in Flint, I think, is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, who also called for quicker action.
EPA officials have not said what will be included in the final lead and copper rule, but the agency is considering a lead line replacement requirement, as well as a provision that would set new limits for levels of lead in home water systems — the so-called “household action level,” testified Joel Beauvais, the EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Water.
The lead and copper rule revision has emerged as a rare point of bipartisan agreement in the debate over the federal response to Flint, where mistakes by state and federal regulators left residents exposed to lead contamination in their drinking water for months.
Much of the congressional debate has focused on who is to blame for the crisis, rather than how to fix it. A proposal to provide direct aid and loans to Flint has been stalled in the Senate for weeks. A broader effort to replace aging pipes would cost as much as $30 billion, which lawmakers seem loath to pay.
But an EPA requirement for replacing pipes could prompt local and state action, said Stephen Estes-Smargiassi, director of planning and sustainability at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, and a witness at Wednesday’s hearing.
Estes-Smargiassi said the water utilities could provide zero-interest loans to customers who undertake the work or other incentive programs, echoing a system that has worked in cities like Boston. The federal government could offset the expense with tax credits. Publicizing the location of lead lines could spur homeowners to replace those on their properties, especially when they are selling their homes, he said.
The American Water Works Association, a trade group, has estimated that replacing the country’s lead pipes — about 6.1 million service lines, per the group’s count — would cost around $30 billion.
The EPA’s Beauvais said the situation in Flint had created a “sense of urgency” about the new recommendations, but he would not commit to releasing the deadlines before the beginning of next year.
“Many of the recommendations were developed before Flint came to light in the national consciousness,” he said. “Our understanding on where we need to go on this has evolved.”
Congress banned the use of lead in new pipes 30 years ago, but between 3.3 million and 10 million older pipes are still in use, said the committee’s ranking member Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J. The federal government has also invested considerable dollars in eradicating lead poisoning in children, but funding has dried up in recent years .
Pallone said the Safe Drinking Water Act needs to be strengthened and the EPA needs more authority to set safety standards for drinking water. But the Flint situation and the national issues that it exposed will also require a far-reaching federal response.
He pointed to the recent discovery of lead in the drinking water at public schools in Newark in his own state, and said families across the country were potentially at risk from lead in their home plumbing.
“It is long past time for a serious conversation in this country about the dangerous lack of federal investment in our drinking water infrastructure and our public health system,” Pallone said.
Some Republicans have expressed reluctance to pay for the direct response in Flint, which they have said should be the responsibility of the state officials who have been found responsible.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said Wednesday that the federal government must work with a “finite amount of resources” and consider its priorities for public health. “We want appropriate attention placed on this issue, but not at the expense of addressing other public health issues,” he said.