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A proposed new rule from the EPA says U.S. cities need to replace lead water pipes


The Environmental Protection Agency wants to make cities replace their lead water pipes within the next decade. It would cost billions, but the agency says removing the threat of lead contamination will improve kids' IQ scores, reduce high blood pressure and lower the risk of heart disease in adults. The proposal comes nine years after a crisis in Flint, Mich., when the drinking water was tainted by lead. Melissa Mays lives in Flint. She founded the advocacy group Water You Fighting For. And she's with us now. Good morning.

MELISSA MAYS: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

FADEL: Thank you for being here. So I want to get a sense of what you think of this new proposal. It's being described as the Flint effect.

MAYS: Well, since we found out in 2015 that, you know, for the previous 18 months, our water had been contaminated with lead, which was something we thought had been removed as a concern because lead in paint had been taken care of - and, you know, at least they were working on getting rid of all of that. Lead in gas was gone. But then lead in drinking water was something new to us. So we had been fighting all these years to make sure nobody else had to go through what we've been going through, dealing with behavioral issues in adults, children and seniors, heart problems, cardiovascular, immune system - all of the widespread negative impacts that lead has had on our lives. And we're glad that the EPA is finally moving to change and update this 1991, you know, law. And hopefully, there won't be more Flints. But unfortunately, the proposed law makes it look like that might not be the case.

FADEL: Now, in spite of years of legal action, Flint still hasn't finished replacing all its lead pipes. So how realistic is this proposal that every U.S. city in this country will replace their lead pipes within 10 years?

MAYS: We filed in 2015 to sue to remove all of the lead and galvanized steel service lines in Flint. And in 2017, all the parties agreed to have this done starting in 2017 and ending in 2020. Well, for the past several years, myself and our attorneys and all of the residents impacted - we've all been in court to make sure this gets done right. My hope is that all of the things that have happened to us and all the loopholes that the politicians and the agencies and, you know, everybody has found to slow this process down will be ironed out so no other city has to go through this. And they focus on the importance on getting the lead out because it's been almost 10 years in Flint.

FADEL: Yeah.

MAYS: And things aren't getting better. Our water is not better, and we're seeing other cities like Benton Harbor, Mich., and, you know, Newark, N.J., who have been done. Like, the pipes were out because it was prioritized. And we're hoping that the program moves more like this. But the EPA is going to have to put some teeth into the law to basically bring about consequences if, you know, the government, the state, whoever is running that water system doesn't do what they're supposed to do and finds loopholes to get out of the work, like what's happened to us in Flint still.

FADEL: And that doesn't exist right now? The law doesn't have the teeth that you want it to?

MAYS: No. And that's one of my big concerns. And giving a 10-year line, you know, allowing 10 years or longer for some bigger cities, up to 40 years for cities like Chicago - that's a huge concern because the longer the water sits like this, the worse it gets. We just had someone over the summer test at over 14,000 parts per billion of lead. Five thousand is hazardous waste because as long as these pipes sit there, it just - it gets worse. So we want this to be a priority and done fast and done right.

FADEL: Melissa Mays in Flint, Mich. Thank you, Melissa, for your time.

MAYS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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