Staying Ahead of Lead

dripping water faucet

What the Scope of LCRR Compliance Work Will Consist of in 2023 & How Lead Has Impacted Public Trust of Water Systems

In short, when it comes to complying with the U.S. EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCRR), water utilities have a lot on their plates. The current rule directs utilities to prepare and maintain an inventory of lead service line materials by October 2024. But many in the sector say inventories are just one piece of this multi-faceted effort that also calls for adequate funding, effective public outreach and a proactive replacement strategy.

In December, the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC) released a new report, From the Ground Up: A Guide to Replacing the Nation’s Toxic Lead Pipes Over the Next Decade, to examine best practices for policymakers, utilities and the communities they serve in tacking a range of lead pipe replacement challenges. To help review what LCRR compliance work may look like between now and October 2024, we invited a roundtable of experts – some of whom also contributed to the EPIC report – to weigh in on these issues, as well as how public trust has been impacted from recent high profile water infrastructure crises. Our panel of experts:

  • Maureen Cunningham, Chief Strategy Officer and Director of Water, Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC)
  • Jonathan Cuppett, Director of Water Quality Compliance, 120Water
  • Mike McGill, President, WaterPIO &
  • Ian Robinson, President & COO, BlueConduit

WF&M: What is your outlook for the year on the task of utilities achieving compliance on the LCRR by October 2024? What’s the biggest challenge you’re seeing? Locating lead? Completing inventory? Getting funding? Replacing? Public communication?

Maureen Cunningham

Maureen Cunningham, EPIC: Smaller, medium-sized, and overburdened communities face a multitude of water quality and infrastructure challenges, including lead pipes. Locating and mapping lead pipes and completing an inventory is a big hurdle. Records may be incomplete, only available in paper form, or unavailable, and utilities may not have the capacity or technologies to facilitate this process. Inventories are a necessary step in securing funding because they highlight the scope and scale of the problem – and funding needed – for replacement. The 2024 inventory deadline is a critical milestone – especially if we are to take advantage of funding that is available now and stay on track to replace lead pipes over the next decade.

Jonathan Cuppett

Jonathan Cuppett, 120Water: EPA intends to finalize a new rulemaking, Lead and Copper Rule Improvements (LCRI), prior to the Oct. 16, 2024 compliance deadline of the LCRR. This creates some uncertainty on how the LCRI will impact the current LCRR requirements and associated timelines. EPA has been clear that the Lead Service Line Inventory (LSLI) requirements and associated Oct. 16, 2024 deadline will not change. As a result, preparing for and developing LSLIs has been the primary focus of utilities across the country. One of the major challenges facing utilities is better understanding the number of service lines in their systems where the material is “unknown” and paying for the strategies and programs to reduce the number of “unknowns.”

Mike McGill

Mike McGill, WaterPIO: Honestly, it’s not good. Many utilities, and rightfully so, waited for EPA guidance on how to conduct their inventory work, the main component for compliance by October 2024. As a result, they’re 18 months away from the deadline and are just getting started, not to mention they haven’t begun the public communications work that will be necessary for success.

Two major challenges have risen to the top. Internally, there’s the need to harness whatever data they must establish their base of knowledge of lead in their systems. Externally, there’s the need to get their customers to conduct lead searches on their properties and in their homes. There are several pitfalls, including the need to proactively handle delicate public communications and outreach; investigation error rates; pushback due to fear of what happens next, and attention-grabbing demands that utilities remove the lead right away – and on the utility’s dime – whenever it is found, and that’s NOT the purpose of LSL inventories under the Lead and Copper Rule.

Ian Robinson

Ian Robinson, BlueConduit: October 2024 is just over 18 months away. There is so much that needs to be done in that timeline that and it starts with getting a handle on the service line inventory. Yet, many utilities lack reliable information on lead service lines. Predictive modeling fills those gaps. October 2024 is not the finish line when it comes to LCRR compliance. It is the starting line. All the work done between now and then is to ensure a smooth process of maintaining compliance with LCRR.

WF&M: What challenges, if any, are occurring for utilities using IIJA funds to finance LCRR inventory and replacement? Are any of the IIJA rules/requirements creating any unique challenges for water systems?

Cunningham: Federal IIJA funds are distributed through the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (DWSRFs); according to EPIC’s analysis, only 7.1 percent of eligible water systems accessed DWSRFs in the last decade. The challenge is ensuring communities have better access to these funds through technical assistance at the local level and policy reforms at the state level. For example, states have broad discretion to decide which communities are eligible for additional subsidies through the program and to ‘set-aside’ funds to support inventories and other pre-construction tasks, thereby reducing project costs covered by loans and principal forgiveness and enabling municipalities to borrow less.

Cuppett: State DWSRF appropriations are based on past assessments of infrastructure needs that did not account for the varying magnitude of LSLs in each state. This leaves utilities in states with a high concentration of LSLs at a potential funding disadvantage. Another area that utilities need to be aware of are the funding mandates that must be provided to “disadvantaged communities.” Each state has its own definition for “disadvantaged community” and these definitions are used to prioritize funds through the DWSRF. Finally, any project funded under this appropriation must replace the entire LSL, not just a portion, unless a portion has already been replaced.

McGill: What I do see with the public are expectations being created that the utility should pay for everything when it comes to removing lead from their systems. Expectations need to be set, again using proactive communication, about where the money is headed and why, especially if private-side replacements are not being paid for by the utility. Customers will demand that their lead lines should be replaced by the utility at the utility’s cost.  The more utilities set replacement expectations at the start, the better off they will be as the work moves forward

Robinson: A big challenge for utilities comes on the private side of the service line. Water service lines generally contain two segments – a privately owned portion and publicly owned portion. IIJA funding must be used for full-service line replacement. This creates a challenge for water utilities that face limitations, operationally or legally from conducting work on the private side of the line. Several cities and states have implemented strategies to overcome these challenges, and it’s important to elevate those examples so that other utilities can feel like it is worth their time to apply for IIJA funding.

WF&M: Is there anything that you think the federal government could have done differently – as far as timing for compliance, providing technical support, etc. – in this process thus far?

Cunningham: EPIC believes we need to replace 100 percent of the nation’s lead pipes in the next decade. We therefore support the efforts of the Biden-Harris administration to move towards this goal, with its “Get the Lead Out” Partnership which includes EPIC, EPA’s LSLR accelerators, and the selection of Environmental Finance Centers (EFCs), including EPIC, to connect more disadvantaged communities to IIJA funding. We also hope to see a 10-year timeline codified and a requirement for full lead service line replacement mandated and fully funded by utilities in the new Lead and Copper Rule expected by October 2024.

Cuppett: The past changes in the LCRR effective and compliance dates created confusion. Additionally, the upcoming LCRI proposal and its impact on the existing guidance in the LCRR continues to create uncertainty for water systems. Moving forward, it will be critical for EPA to release the LCRI proposal as soon as possible and to keep ongoing dialogue with the industry on how the proposed changes will impact water systems and associated compliance timelines.

McGill: I could – and have – written thousands of words on this question. I’ll stay in my communications lane to be brief. I’ve said to the EPA that, while the LCR is based on the noble goal of getting the lead out everywhere it remains in our systems, the way it is written creates a wide variety of public information challenges that most utilities are simply not able to meet because of a lack of staff, resources and COMMS expertise. The de facto public communication and outreach requirements, on top of what is actually in the LCR, put most utilities in a position to fail, and fail spectacularly, just as they are working to achieve the EPA’s noble goal.

Robinson: There is a lot happening in a relatively short window. We hear of utilities waiting on more information from their state regulators or about the LCRI before they are willing to start. Utilities need more information and more clarity so that they can prepare.

WF&M: Due to lead service lines being such a hot button issue for the sector, what are your thoughts on how lead has impacted public trust in water utilities/local government to effectively manage water?

Cunningham: Since the 2014 Flint crisis, lead-contaminated water has garnered national attention, and has resulted in a steep decline in public trust and an increased reliance on bottled and filtered water. In subsequent national polling by NRDC and Water Hub in 2022 and by Black Millennials for Flint, BlueGreen Alliance, and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in 2021, lead-contaminated water dominates as a major concern and replacing lead pipes as a priority. Proactive communications, transparency, a focus on equity, and community engagement are therefore critical.

Cuppett: Public trust starts at the local level and industry leaders understand the importance of clear and frequent communication regarding all aspects of their enterprise. It is critical to develop a positive relationship with your community so when communication challenges emerge, they are viewed as opportunities to solidify the utility as a trusted source of information. There are a few recent examples where lead in drinking water has eroded public trust. However, the industry remains committed to protecting public health and the unified focus on that priority has allowed the cumulative goodwill to overshadow the negative exceptions and position water utilities as a trusted partner in communities across the country.

McGill: What happened in Flint still hangs over the water world, not just on work related to lead but with other water quality issues I deal with all over the country, like PFAS. PFAS contamination has nothing to do with what happened in Flint, but customers make the connection because they equate any perceived water quality failure as similar in substance to the actual failures that took place in Michigan.

Robinson: Flint, Mich., was a wake-up call for the nation. Utilities can build trust with their communities or lose it. Utilities can gain (or regain) trust by effectively, proactively communicating about lead. Residents need to know the steps the utility is taking, and steps individuals can take to reduce their risk.

WF&M: How can effective communication and public outreach assist in making a lead service line inventory and replacement program successful?

Cunningham: As the main source of information on lead pipes in a community, water utilities need to communicate earlier, better and at every milestone in their programs. They also need to engage stakeholders, including community-based organizations and elected officials, to ensure information on lead risks and replacement efforts is getting out to the people who need it most – in the format, venue and language they will respond to. Residents and community groups can help identify lead pipes and at-risk residents and neighborhoods. Public awareness can also put pressure on government officials to allocate funding, ensure a focus on equity, and push for faster replacement rates.

Cuppett: These programs present a unique customer engagement opportunity due to the fact that service lines are an asset that is typically owned by both the utility and the customer. Some utilities are having their customers help with the inventory by serving as pipe material detectives and providing data (e.g. scratch test, magnet test, pictures, lead swabs, etc.) on the part of the service line inside the home. Many utilities engaged in replacement programs are replacing the entire service line at little to no cost to the customer.  Delivering on the various opportunities to engage your customers in these programs and articulating the potential benefits can greatly increase their effectiveness.

McGill: It’s the backbone for success. Having worked in crisis communications for more than two decades, I can tell you that the best operational responses – in this case, inventory and replacement programs – can be made to look like they are complete failures if utility customers, the news media, elected officials, and community leaders are not properly informed early and often about every public-facing aspect of their LCR work.

Utilities must realize there are several major differences between inventory communications and replacement communications that, if they’re not treated differently, could set themselves up for failure. Why? The goal of the LSLI is to find the lead, THEN create plans to replace it, utility inventory work will not automatically lead to an LSL replacement program for a few years.

If utilities apply replacement messages and tactics to their inventory work – like posting a public-facing, interactive map of everywhere lead has been found – they will set themselves up for controversy, and public calls that they replace the lead lines ASAP on the utility’s dime. After all, a home publicly marked for lead will see its value plummet, especially if its neighbors don’t have lead lines.

Robinson: Effective communications are key. The City of Toledo provides a great example here. Toledo published a community-facing map to show the likelihood of a lead service line at every address. They provide a way for residents to self-report the service line materials inside the house. As excavations got underway, Toledo combined resident input with data from excavations to expand their public facing map of lead service lines to include customer side predictions.

WF&M: What is the best way for utilities to gauge whether the pace of their replacement program is efficient enough? On the construction side, are there any replacement methods or systems that you’re seeing that utilities should consider?

Cuppett: Innovative replacement techniques such as pipe pulling and pipe splitting allow the new pipe to be placed along the original route and can save time if site specific conditions are favorable. Directional boring is another popular technique that reduces surface damage to sidewalks and yards.

McGill: Public perception, and not just the thoughts and feelings of their customers, but the views of the press, elected officials and community leaders. 

Robinson: We need to focus work in areas where we expect the most lead to be in the ground, while also integrating service line replacement with other utility operations/projects. It’s important to be smart with how we’re working, balancing equity with efficiency. If a water utility only replaced service lines when a customer specifically requested a service line replacement, the project would be very efficient, but it might not be fast or equitable. The correct metric is: “Have we gotten all the lead out?” If not, there is still work to be done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *