10/10/2019 18:04 EDT | Updated 10/10/2019 20:34 EDT

Lead Pipes Are Safe From The EPA's New Drinking Water Rule

The regulation that was too weak to stop the Flint water crisis is getting some mild improvements -- but lead pipes can stay.

City water systems face stricter standards under a new regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency, but they still won’t have to replace lead pipes.

Utilities will have to do a better job of testing for lead in people’s drinking water, according to the updated version of the Lead and Copper Rule ― the same regulation that failed to stop the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in 2014. 

Bad water treatment decisions spiked the city’s water with lead that year, resulting in confirmed higher lead levels in Flint children. The government didn’t admit the crisis until late in 2015.

The new regulation has found some critics.

“The Trump administration’s new Lead and Copper Rule is a step backwards and a slap in the face to the children in Flint,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said in a statement.

Lead is a brain-damaging neurotoxin. It also happens to be a pliable metal that is handy for making pipes. It has been mostly banned from use in plumbing materials, but millions of buildings across the country still get water from old lead service lines that could last for decades more. 

In recent years, public health experts have learned that even tiny amounts of exposure can be dangerous. Many water regulation experts say the only way to make sure drinking water is safe from lead is to force cities to get rid of their lead pipes altogether. 

But digging up lead pipes is expensive. Flint has only done so thanks partly to a $100 million infusion from the federal government in the wake of the crisis. 

In a draft of its proposed regulation, the EPA said that “due to the financial and practical challenges of wide-spread replacement of lead pipes around the country, it is important to use our nation’s resources wisely, and thus target actions where they are most needed and can provide the most good.”

Instead of replacing pipes, both the current and proposed new rule tell cities to add chemicals to their drinking water to make it less corrosive and form a protective coating on the inside of service lines.

The new regulation will make more cities conduct corrosion control testing. It would also require cities to take an inventory of their pipes, since many were laid so long ago utilities aren’t even sure where they are. And for the first time the rule will require utilities to check for lead in schools and daycares, which have been exempt even though children’s brains are more vulnerable to lead exposure than adults. 

“Today, the Trump administration is delivering on its commitment to ensure all Americans have access to clean drinking water by proposing the first major overhaul of the Lead and Copper Rule in over two decades,” EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement Thursday. 

Under the current rule, utilities have to replace 7% of their lead pipes annually if samples taken from people’s taps exceeds a certain threshold. The new rule would require them to replace only 3% of pipes annually if they exceed the threshold ― which isn’t getting stricter. 

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech civil engineering professor who worked with Flint residents to blow the whistle on the city’s water lead, said he thought the relaxed standard might actually lead to a better outcome. 

“Doing 7% out of the blue was just considered so unthinkable that many utilities said they can’t do it, they’d rather cheat and pretend their water’s safe,” Edwards said. (Flint, for instance, avoided taking samples from enough homes that were known to have lead pipes.) 

Edwards believes it’s unrealistic to expect the kind of public investment it would take to fix the problem nationally. If the Flint water crisis didn’t make it happen, what would?

“Lead pipes are going to be there for my lifetime and my children’s lifetime,” he said. “You get the water you pay for.”