California city water agencies fight legislative effort to set strict health safeguards for lead pipeline replacements

The Environmental Working Group is urging California lawmakers to pass a strong bill to ensure safe and quick replacements of lead-contaminated pipelines, and oppose a loophole allowing the work to be done without any health safeguards in broadly defined emergency situations.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that is especially harmful to children. It harms brain development and can impair learning and behavior. Even small amounts can cause irreversible damage. People can be exposed to lead in their drinking water from contaminated pipelines.

It is also harmful for adults – the link between lead exposure and a higher risk of death from heart disease accounts for more than 400,000 deaths yearly. Increased blood lead levels are also linked to higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Lead pipeline legislation

A bill pending in the California Assembly, A.B. 1931, would restrict hazardous partial lead line replacements, and require water systems to inform customers when removing lead pipes or components attached to contaminated galvanized lines. It would also require them to provide filters, educate customers about lead exposure and test drinking water. 

The measure, by Assemblymember Luz Rivas (D-San Fernando Valley), would ensure billions in federal funds could be used in the state to remove lead lines safely, even lead-contaminated galvanized lines on customers’ property, and fix lead problems from past partial replacements.

A.B. 1931 will help, but lawmakers need to scrap language that lets some regulators pursue dangerous partial pipeline replacements in broadly defined “emergency” situations.  

The bill is cosponsored by EWG, the Natural Resources Defense Council and CALPIRG.

City and private water agencies push back

Fully replacing lead lines with safer alternatives is vital to protect against lead, which contaminates the drinking water that millions of Californians rely on. 

But some state and local water regulators are allowing dangerous partial lead-galvanized replacements without first ensuring that adequate health safeguards are in place. Some communities have no idea their pipes have already been replaced. 

Records obtained by EWG show that some state water officials are moving too slowly to address the health concerns tied to partial line replacements, a hazardous practice which is known to disturb lead and increase its presence in drinking water.

For more than two years, EWG and other clean water advocates have urged California officials to end partial replacements of lead service lines and galvanized lines downstream of lead plumbing parts. More than 500,000 galvanized lines still deliver water to Californians.

A.B. 1931 would better protect the public from the risk of lead contamination when pipelines are replaced, by limiting harmful partial replacements and ensuring safe removal.

While this bill is a first attempt to address this problem, it needs to be strengthened.

The California Municipal Utilities Association, representing city-owned water agencies, and organizations representing privately owned utilities oppose A.B. 1931. They say the state should not enact new lead line laws, because the federal government may change its requirements for lead and galvanized pipe replacements. 

Complying with federal law

In 2021, the Biden administration adopted stronger public health protections for lead and galvanized pipe management throughout the U.S. that will take effect in 2024.

And last week, Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency issued guidance on how to identify lead pipes that connect drinking water services to homes, including best practices for developing pipeline inventories, and it allows states to set stricter lead pipe work standards.

Unfortunately, in California, the lead line replacements and pipe disturbances happening now don’t comply with the new federal protections. Records obtained by EWG under a Public Records Act request show California regulators are sitting on their hands instead of acting swiftly to add strict health safeguards to pipeline removals. And that refusal to move swiftly underscores the need for strong legislation to establish public health protections.

Advocates want water systems to use nationally recognized public health safeguards, such as tightly restricting partial replacements, and providing notice, educational materials and filters, as well as testing water when lead pipes and lead pipe pieces are removed. These safeguards were designed, and supported by the new federal rules, to protect the public from lead that could be released into drinking water when lead pipes and lead-contaminated galvanized pipes get disturbed during repairs or replacements.

Focus on federal action

The slow pace of implementing protections in California contrasts with a number of federal actions. In 2021, President Joe Biden signed the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which includes $15 billion to remove lead service lines for homes, schools and businesses. 

In February, EWG and other public health advocates urged EPA Administrator Michael Regan to issue guidelines that ensure the money could be used to pay for removal of lead-contaminated galvanized lines downstream of lead components. The EPA agreed and is allowing the federal dollars to pay for removal of lines on customers’ property.

However, waiting for federal or state agencies to set new formal rules on pipeline removals, such as cities and utilities suggest, will only expose Californians to more lead. By the time any new rules are adopted, the vast majority of lead pipe and component removals in the state will have occurred without strong health safeguards.

Problematic pipeline removals

In 2016, water systems began to speed up problematic partial lead line removals. A California state law required water systems to account for and report the presence of lead pipes and lead components. These inventories were due in 2020. 

The final tallies show nearly 100 water agencies reported known or suspected lead pipes and components in their systems.

An official with the Division of Drinking Water has stated in an email[1] that some water systems extensively removed lead pipes before 2020, and may not have publicly reported the pipes’ presence. Some pipes were removed before regulators formally approved the work. 

The removals were partial and without health safeguards. The City of Sacramento partially removed or disturbed nearly 100,000 lines ahead of the reporting deadline. The city did not give EWG any evidence that it provided its residents notice, filters or water testing.

Although the Division of Drinking Water knew partial replacements were happening, it was many months before it took any action. Finally, in March 2022, the agency required just 13 water systems to use public health protections when removing lead pipes and lead components. Inventories show almost half the 96 affected systems had completed partial replacements by the time these permits were issued.

A legislative path forward

A.B. 1931 can help address the problem of partial lead line replacements and unsafe removals – if the problematic loophole is removed, and the EPA’s stricter health protections, which go into effect in 2024, are applied now. 

Californians shouldn’t be exposed to more lead from their tap. The state can’t risk any more delays in tackling the widespread lead problem.

All that stands in the way of making this bill stronger and passing it is the misguided opposition of city water officials and utilities.


Editor's note: This article has been revised since its first publication with information about an email from the Division of Drinking Water.

References

1 Email sent by Kurt Souza, Southern California Branch Chief

SWRCB-Division of Drinking Water, January 29, 2021

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