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The Flint effect: Feds propose eliminating U.S. lead pipes within 10 years

lead pipe
Communities across the nation would have to remove lead-containing pipes and service lines, like the one shown here, within 10 years under a proposed federal rule. (Bridge file photo)
  • Under an EPA proposal, U.S. cities would have 10 years to get lead pipes out of their drinking water systems
  • The rule follows years of growing awareness about lead-tainted water after the Flint water crisis.
  • Michigan regulators say they applaud the new rule but would need more  money to meet the stepped-up timeline

Nine years after the Flint water crisis exposed the hidden peril of lead in U.S. water systems, a new federal proposal would give utilities across the country 10 years to remove pipes containing the neurotoxic metal.

Announcing the proposal Thursday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Admistrator Michael S. Regan said it will help the nation address “a generational public health issue.” 

The rule could be finalized as soon as next year.


“With collaboration and the focused actions proposed today, EPA is delivering on our charge to protect all Americans, especially communities of color, that are disproportionately harmed by lead in drinking water systems,” Regan said.

Flint and Benton Harbor, two majority-Black Michigan cities full of old homes served by lead pipes, and beset by financial problems after decades of industrial disinvestment and population loss, became poster children for that harm during two separate yearslong water crises.

The notorious Flint crisis occurred when state-appointed emergency managers, looking to cut costs for Flint, approved switching the city’s drinking water from Detroit’s water system to the polluted Flint River in 2014, without requiring chemical treatments to prevent corrosion in lead pipes.

While residents complained of murky and foul-smelling water and skin rashes, officials waited a year-and-a-half to admit there was a problem. After a criminal investigation riddled with missteps, Flint residents learned this month that no public officials will stand trial for their role in the crisis.

Several years later, Benton Harbor in southwest Michigan endured its own lead water crisis colored by similar themes of suburban flight and deindustrialization. 

Following the Flint crisis, Michigan in 2018 became the first state in the nation to require removal of all lead pipes, giving municipalities until 2041 to finish the job. If finalized, Thursday’s proposed EPA rule would supersede Michigan’s deadline, requiring utilities across the nation to finish the job within 10 years.  

Rev. Edward Pinkney, leader of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, called the federal action a point of pride for Flint and Benton Harbor residents, whose activism forced environmental regulators to take lead hazards more seriously.

“We made sure that we have clean, safe water,” Pinkney said. “If it had not happened here in Michigan, they would not be talking about it all the way around the country.”

The proposed 10-year deadline includes exceptions for communities with a particularly high concentration of lead lines. That could include older Midwestern cities with lots of homes built before lead-containing pipes were banned in 1986. It’s unclear what kind of leeway those communities would be given if the rule is implemented. 

Hugh McDiarmid, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, applauded the proposal and said Michigan’s existing lead line removal mandate gives it “a running start” on the federal deadline. 

Nationwide, removing all lead pipes is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars. By one estimate, the cost in Michigan alone could exceed $2.5 billion. An influx of state funding and $15 billion in federal infrastructure dollars is expected to help U.S. municipalities cover those costs.

But McDiarmid acknowledged that moving up the deadline by several years will require additional funding.

“Where that money will come from is an open question,” he said, adding that “we hope the federal government will provide some resources.”

Lead is a neurotoxin so potent, there is no safe level. It accumulates in teeth and bones, and damages the brain and nervous system. It is particularly harmful to children; it can stunt their growth and cause permanent learning, hearing, speech and behavior problems. 

The federal proposal would also lower the allowable limit for lead in drinking water from 15 parts-per-billion to 10 parts-per-billion. Environmental groups called that insufficient, arguing the federal limit should be set at 5 parts-per-billion, which is the limit in Canada and the proposed limit in Europe.

Forty-three Michigan water systems tested above the proposed 10 ppb threshold on their latest round of sampling.

During a Wednesday call with reporters to unveil the rule, EPA officials appeared along with Dr. Mona Hannah-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician credited for sounding the alarm on the city’s tainted water. Hannah-Attisha lauded the proposal, saying it will ensure that “there will never be another city and another child poisoned by their pipes.”

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