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EPA proposes new rule to require nationwide replacement of lead pipes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today the EPA proposed the strictest rules on lead pipes in three decades. Under the new guidance, most U.S. cities would have to replace lead pipes within the next decade. To give you an idea, the EPA estimates about 9 million lead pipes are still bringing water into American homes and businesses and schools. Let's bring in Angela Guyadeen. She directs the Safe Water Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Hi there. Welcome.

ANGELA GUYADEEN: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: So what is your reaction to this news as somebody who's worked centers on safe drinking water?

GUYADEEN: Yeah. You know, we are at a moment where many of us are just overwhelmed by bad news. And this EPA new rule provides us really with a ray of hope that we are approaching the day when every family can trust that the water from their kitchen tap is safe, regardless of how much money they make, what their skin color is or where they live. And so this is a very exciting moment for all of us working on this issue.

KELLY: Yeah. So I hear you saying it's exciting; it's a ray of hope. How realistic is this goal? Because again, it's a goal. It's a proposal. It's guidance.

GUYADEEN: Yeah. Well, I mean, I would point to communities like Newark and Benton Harbor, Mich., where they were actually able to get their lead service lines out in a matter of a couple of years. I think Benton Harbor was about 18 months, and Newark was about under three years. So, you know, while some people might say this is a pipe dream - pun intended - it's actually achievable in a lot of different places. And it really requires the political will and communities and legislators and elected officials working together to decide that they're going to make this happen. We know that this is an extremely popular issue. It polls very well. And it's hard to argue with providing clean drinking water for your communities. So...

KELLY: And just step back and remind everybody.

GUYADEEN: Yeah.

KELLY: We know that lead pipes are bad. Water that's been through lead pipes is bad. But what is the impact of lead leaching into our drinking water?

GUYADEEN: Sure. Well, there is - according to pediatricians and doctors across the country, they've all agreed that there is no safe level of lead. We know that it is harmful for children. It can cause developmental issues. It can impact IQs negatively. But the American Heart Association and others have also identified that there are also risks to adults as well, including cardiovascular disease. So across the board, we know that this is not healthy. We don't want to be drinking from what is the equivalent of a lead straw. And getting them out will make people in communities healthier and better.

KELLY: Yeah. Again, this is federal guidance. What is the role of city, county, local community advocates in pushing for these changes? I guess I'm thinking - I hear lead water, and sadly, I think Flint, Mich.

GUYADEEN: Sure. Well, I'm glad that you're mentioning the community. So there's a couple of pieces here to your question. The first is, you know, I think the real heroes here are those who, unfortunately, have experienced the lead in drinking water crisis, such as those in Flint and Newark and in many other places across the country. And it's because of their advocacy and shining a spotlight on, you know, what it is like to live through lead-in-drinking-water crisis. I don't know if you've seen the stories where there are individuals talking about in order to make their Thanksgiving dinner, they're opening up, like, you know, dozens of bottles of water just to make potatoes, right?

KELLY: Yeah.

GUYADEEN: And so their advocacy has really shine a spotlight and has forced the Biden administration to make good on their promise. I think the other piece of this is a really great question about, you know, what responsibility do states and communities have to provide clean drinking water? And the good news is that there's $15 billion in the bipartisan infrastructure law for lead service line replacement specifically. So this is great news by Congress. It's a lot of money. It's probably, you know, the largest investment in my generation, for sure. But we know this money isn't going to go all the way. And so states and communities are going to have to figure out, how can they take the money that's already out there? But they probably are going to have to find a way to come up with some additional money to ensure that all of the lead pipes are replaced. So states and communities definitely have a role in this, too.

KELLY: That is Angela Guyadeen. She is director of the Safe Water Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council. And we have been talking about this new proposal out today from the EPA, the strictest rules on lead pipes in three decades. Thank you.

GUYADEEN: You're welcome. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emma Klein
Tinbete Ermyas
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.