Deadlines for drinking water regulations are being pushed back for a variety of reasons.
Credit: Elena Elisseeva | Deadlines for drinking water regulations are being pushed back for a variety of reasons.

EPA is caught in a perfect political and economic storm that’s slowing efforts to meet Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996 goals. New leaders with new priorities are coming onboard just as the federal budget sequester sets off furloughs (about 10 days per employee in many divisions) and reductions in the use of outside contractors.

Bottom line: Deadlines for regulatory action on perchlorate, carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and long-term revisions of the lead and copper rule (LCR) are being pushed back. No final rules will be issued this year and any proposals scheduled for 2013 probably won’t be published.

EPA Administrator nominee Gina McCarthy comes out of the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation, the agency’s most active division, given its focus on greenhouse gases and climate change. As a result, contamination from shale gas development (hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to harvest the nation’s abundant natural gas supplies) is the only drinking water issue on the agency’s priority list these days.

Peter Grevatt, the new director of the EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, took over the job last fall from Cynthia Dougherty, who headed the office for many years. A career agency employee, his most-recent posting was dealing with children’s health issues, which was outside the drinking water office.

“Peter has said in presentations to us and other groups that he wants to ‘get the science right’ on new rules and not just rush to meet a deadline,” says Bridget O’Grady, Association of State Drinking Water Administrators policy and legislative affairs manager.

Is perchlorate worth regulating?

EPA’s most contentious drinking water issue has been perchlorate, an acid that occurs naturally but is manufactured for rocket fuel, fireworks, flares, and explosives.

The George W. Bush Administration said the chemical didn’t meet two of the three criteria in the Safe Drinking Water Act, the law that kicked off development of primary standards. All the “bad actors” identified in the 17-year-old law are now regulated, so new targets, like perchlorate, present the agency with tougher decisions. One is whether the cost to utilities to filter a contaminant justifies what in some cases are narrow public health benefits.

Efforts to establish a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for perchlorate have advanced slowly and are awaiting an EPA Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) recommendation on something called an enhanced physiologically based pharmacokinetic (PBPK) model with which to calculate the MCL.

When he issued recommendations in March, Stephen Roberts, chairman of SAB’s Perchlorate Advisory Panel, said finalizing the model could take up to 10 years. However, Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies Director of Regulatory Affairs Scott Biernat thinks the agency’s preliminary work on the model makes publication of a proposed rule in 2014 likely.

Volatile organic compounds

Delays will be even longer for the 16 carcinogenic VOCs, a group which includes industrial solvents such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE).

Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson designated those 16 for either revised or first-time standards in February 2011. Some, like TCE, have an MCL; some don’t. Jackson wanted to work on all 16 as a group, but the agency has given up on that, according to Biernat. Whether McCarthy and Grevatt feel likewise is uncertain.

Getting the lead out

Musical chairs are also slowing revisions to the lead and copper rule (LCR), which EPA first promulgated in 1991.

The agency’s major review in 2004 indicated a need for “substantive changes.” Requirements under consideration include sample site selection criteria, tap sampling procedures, water quality parameters monitoring, and — the most controversial — lead service line replacement. Utilities are responsible for water lines to the curb; property owners for the lines from the curb to the home or business. The agency wants an agreement from both parties to replace both lines, when necessary, at the same time.

However, EPA isn’t going to roll up its sleeves to tackle that issue until after the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act goes into effect Jan. 4, 2014. The law changes the definition of “lead-free” under the Safe Drinking Water Act by:

  • reducing lead content to a weighted average of not more than 0.25% in wetted surface material (meters, expansion tanks, backflow preventers, flexible connectors, gauges, fittings, valves, etc.; a non-compliant component doesn’t have to be replaced unless and until it’s taken out of service for any reason, which means testing as well as repair)
  • providing a formula for calculatinglead content
  • creating two exemptions to prohibitions on the sale and use of products that are not “lead-free.”