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EPA delays post-Flint rule changes for lead in drinking water

The EPA is moving forward to update regulations to reduce lead in drinking water, but says the effort will take months longer than planned.
Image: Michigan National Guard To Help Flint With Lead Contamination In Water Supply
The Flint Water Plant tower is shown January 13, 2016 in Flint, Michigan.Bill Pugliano / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is moving forward to update regulations to reduce lead in drinking water, but says the effort will take months longer than planned.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced on Thursday that it would delay its publication ofproposed changes to federal regulation of lead and copper in drinking water until August 2018, having previously set out to have them released by January 2018. It similarly pushed back the timeline for finalizing the changes to February 2020, seven months after its previous deadline.

It is the second time that the EPA has delayed its proposal to revise the rule since President Donald Trump has taken office. The EPA indicated on Thursday that it would be using the additional time to gather input from state and local stakeholders on revising the rule, which requires utility companies to monitor lead and copper in drinking water.

Though the effort to tighten lead and copper rule has been underway for well over a decade, the issue received renewed attention when the Flint water crisis came to light nearly three years ago. Still, the proposal faced similar delays during the Obama years: In 2015, the administration said it would release its suggested changes by December 2016, then later issued a six-month delay.

"Protecting America’s drinking water from lead is one of EPA's highest priorities and the agency is working closely with states and tribes on revisions the Lead and Copper rule," Lee Forsgren, deputy assistant administrator in EPA’s Office of Water, told NBC News Friday. "This engagement, along with the peer review input the agency recently received on assessments of lead exposure to children, will help to ensure that any potential revisions reflect the best available information and latest science to provide Americans with important public health protections."

Trump called attention to the issue during the 2016 campaign, describing the Flint water crisis as a "horror show" that "would have never happened if I were president."

The EPA's announcement was part of the new regulatory agenda that the administration released yesterday, which Trump marked by celebrating his efforts to roll back federal regulations. The news prompted some Democrats to attack the the agency for slowing down the process.

“These revisions are long overdue and needed to protect public health,” Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, Paul Tonko of New York, and Debbie Dingell of Michigan said in a joint statement. “Administrator Pruitt is hiding this delay behind the guise of a novel consultation process with the states, but the states need to see the proposed rule in order to provide relevant comments.”

Image: Federal State Of Emergency Declared In Flint, Michigan Over Contaminated Water Supply
Tears stream down the face of Morgan Walker, age 5 of Flint, as she gets her finger pricked for a lead screening at Eisenhower Elementary School on January 26, 2016 in Flint, Michigan.Brett Carlsen / Getty Images file

But some public health advocates and experts who have pushed for stronger rules say that it's a good thing that EPA is taking its time to gather more input. "Further consultation with state and local governments is very appropriate," said Lynn Thorp, campaign director for Clean Water Action, who has helped advise the federal government on the rule. “We should make sure revisions are truly informed.”

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who helped uncover the contamination in Flint and the 2004 lead crisis in DC, added that "there are legitimate fears that the new rule could be worse than the old rule."

"From that perspective, a delay would not necessarily be a bad thing, especially if they can make it better than some of the proposed revisions,” he said.

A 2015 report from the National Resources Defense Council found that more than 5,300 water systems across the country were in violation of the lead-monitoring rule.

"The failures of the rule have created the two major lead water crises of our generation — in the Washington D.C. and Flint fiascoes, as well as countless other failures all around the country which we don’t know about or talk about," said Edwards.

The 2004 D.C. crisis had prompted policymakers to tighten federal regulations of lead and copper in drinking water that were originally put in place in 1991. But the effort to make more sweeping changes has taken well over a decade.

That's partly because of the complexities of the regulation, which requiring consumer sampling of potentially contaminated water, as well as deep-seated disagreements about the best way forward. But Edwards says that the effort to make long-term changes to the lead and copper rule has taken far longer than it should have.

"It's been a completely dysfunctional process under every administration, and nothing has changed in my opinion," said Edwards. "The long-term revisions are about five to six years overdue."