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Biden Administration Promises Stricter Regulation of Lead in Drinking Water

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday will announce its intention to propose stricter limits on the amount of lead allowable in drinking water and to begin replacing millions of lead pipes that snake throughout the country and pose a significant public health threat.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can damage the brain and kidneys and interfere with red blood cells that carry oxygen to all parts of the body. It poses particular dangers to children, whose nervous systems and brains are still developing. From the earliest days of municipal water systems, lead was commonly used in pipes, where it can leach into drinking water.

Today, as many as 10 million lead service lines deliver water to schools, offices, homes and day care centers throughout the country. By one industry estimate, it could cost as much as $60 billion to replace them all.

Congress approved just a fraction of that amount — $15 billion — for lead pipe replacement — as part of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law signed last month by President Biden.

At an event on Thursday at the AFL-CIO headquarters, Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to announce that the administration will spend the first chunk of that money — $3 billion — to begin pipe replacement and to reduce the health hazard posed by lead paint, senior administration officials said.

Until it was banned in 1978, lead-based paint was used in residential homes, where it poses a hazard to anyone who might ingest paint chips or inhale lead in dust. About 24 million housing units are considered to have significant lead-based paint hazards.

Ms. Harris is expected to outline the first steps the E.P.A. and other agencies will take toward the Biden administration’s goal of replacing every lead pipe and service line in the United States.

Administration officials on Wednesday said they did not have a time frame for replacing the millions of lead pipes, saying they wanted it done as soon as “feasible.” Environmental groups said they would like to see the E.P.A. set a deadline of 10 years.

“This is truly a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said Erik D. Olson, the senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. “We’ve been living with the scourge of lead contamination for over 100 years in many communities, and once you pull those lead pipes out they’re never going back.”

Current federal regulations set a limit of 15 micrograms per liter of lead in drinking water, but health experts have long argued that lead should be eliminated from water supplies.

“The science on lead is settled,” Michael Regan, the administrator of the E.P.A., said in a statement. “There is no safe level of exposure, and it is time to remove this risk to support thriving people and vibrant communities.”

The E.P.A. did not indicate when a new rule would be proposed, but a senior official said the administration hoped to finalize it by 2024. It is also unclear what the new standard will be.

And the agency will allow a Trump-era set of lead policies to take effect — despite opposition from environmental groups.

Under the Trump administration, the E.P.A. updated the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, the primary regulation regarding lead in drinking water, for the first time in nearly three decades. But the agency rejected the advice of top medical and scientific experts to require the replacement of all lead pipes and service lines.

Instead, the E.P.A. under President Donald J. Trump more than doubled the amount of time allowed for utilities to replace contaminated water systems. The Natural Resources Defense Council sued to block those changes from going into affect, calling them “weak and illegal.”

But Biden officials, speaking to reporters on Wednesday evening, said that the Trump administration rules included some important steps — like requiring water utilities to identify and publicly report the locations of all their lead service pipes. That will now go forward, starting immediately.

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