A U.S. House of Representatives Committee report accompanying an appropriations bill for the FY 2017 Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies includes a provision for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review lead service lines. EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that lead is harmful to health, especially for children. Lead can enter drinking water when service pipelines containing lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures. Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder.
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) reduced the maximum allowable lead content, considered “lead-free,” to be a weighted average of 0.25 percent calculated across the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures and 0.2 percent for solder and flux.
The House Committee report said, “..more information is necessary in order to understand the prevalence of lead pipes in the water infrastructure of cities around the country. To better understand the extent of the need, the Committee urges the Government Accountability Office to expeditiously assess the number of existing lead service lines by State.”
The GAO Report to Congress
In September 2018 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a “Report to Congress, Drinking Water: Approaches for Identifying Lead Service Lines Should be Shared with All States.”
GAO’s report examined (1) what is known about the number of existing lead service lines among states and water systems and (2) states’ responses to EPA’s February 2016 request to work with water systems to publicize inventories of lead service lines and any steps EPA has taken to follow up on these responses.
GAO found that while EPA and some water associations in recent years have developed estimates of the number of lead service lines throughout the U.S., those estimates do not accurately reflect the total number of lead service lines.
GAO recommends that EPA share information about the successful approaches states and water systems use to identify and publicize locations of lead service lines with all states. EPA agreed and is working to implement the GAO recommendations.
States’ Responses to EPA’s February 2016 Request
In light of the events in Flint, Michigan, EPA sent a letter to all states in February 2016 encouraging them to work with water systems to publicly post the materials inventory, along with any additional updated maps or inventories of lead service lines actions the rule does not require.
EPA also encouraged states to place an emphasis on large water systems, which EPA regulations define as those serving populations greater than 50,000. The forthcoming revisions to the lead and copper rule, anticipated proposed rule summer 2019, will strengthen the inventory requirements and continue to focus on large water systems.
GAO found that, of the approximately 43 states that responded that they would fulfill EPA’s request, almost all (39) reported to EPA that, although they had encouraged water systems to publicize inventories, few systems had completed these actions.
GAO found in January 2018 that, of the 100 largest water systems, 12 had publicized information on the inventory of lead service lines. According to EPA, among challenges in conducting inventories of lead service lines and publicizing information about lead service lines were concerns about posting on public websites information about lead service lines on private property; and a lack of records about the locations of lead service lines.
In 1991, EPA issued the Lead and Copper Rule that required all covered drinking water systems to collect information about the infrastructure that delivered drinking water to customers, including any known lead pipes and lead service lines. The purpose of this effort, referred to as materials inventory was to identify locations that may have been particularly susceptible to high lead or copper concentrations, from which water systems would collect drinking water samples.
There are over 151,000 public water systems in the United States. EPA classifies these water systems according to the number of people they serve, the source of their water, and whether they serve the same customers year-round or on an occasional basis. Under the Lead and Copper Rule, a large system serves more than 50,000 people, a medium system serves from 3,301 to 50,000 people, and a small system serves up to 3,300.
68,000 water systems are subject to the Lead and Copper Rule.
GAO recommendations help congressional and agency leaders prepare for appropriations and oversight activities, as well as help improve government operations. As of April 18, 2018, there are 5,184 open GAO recommendations, of which 465 are priority recommendations. Recommendations remain open until they are designated as Closed-implemented or Closed-not implemented.