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Under new EPA proposal, Maine would have to replace thousands of lead pipes in a decade

FILE - A cut lead pipe is pulled from a dig site for testing at a home in Royal Oak, Mich., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Michigan lawmakers on Thursday, March 24, 2022, approved $4.8 billion in spending, mostly for infrastructure upgrades, with an influx of federal pandemic and other funds that will go toward water systems, roads, parks and other priorities including affordable housing.
Carlos Osorio
/
AP
FILE - A cut lead pipe is pulled from a dig site for testing at a home in Royal Oak, Mich., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Michigan lawmakers on Thursday, March 24, 2022, approved $4.8 billion in spending, mostly for infrastructure upgrades, with an influx of federal pandemic and other funds that will go toward water systems, roads, parks and other priorities including affordable housing.

A new proposal from the federal Environmental Protection Agency calls for the replacement of some 9 million lead water pipes over the next decade.

In Maine, recent EPA data suggest there are more than 18,000 lead pipes that carry water to homes, schools and other buildings, which represent 0.2% of the nation's lead service lines.

Pete Nichols, director of the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club, said the announcement is long overdue, even though Maine is ahead of the curve in many ways. Maine banned lead pipes much earlier than other states. And under Maine law, four parts per billion is an acceptable level of lead exposure. The federal government is now proposing that lead action levels be lowered from 15 to 10 parts per billion.

No level of exposure is considered safe, particularly for children.

"It's a significant neurotoxin that's particularly damaging to infants and children, which can impact brain development, cognitive abilities and behavioral issues," Nichols said. "I think it's really going to do a lot to protect our communities."

State-required testing for lead in school drinking water found elevated levels in about one-quarter of Maine schools earlier this year. Elevated levels are often due to older pipes and fixtures.

"Maine, like many states, has lots of aging infrastructure," Nichols said. "This ruling is certainly going to help upgrade old lead pipes in homes and buildings, particularly in schools."

The federal infrastructure law included $15 billion for states to find and replace lead pipes, although more will be needed.