The Environmental Protection Agency's top water regulator said Wednesday that officials are working urgently to strengthen a federal rule limiting lead and copper in drinking water — a key focus in the ongoing lead-contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan.
But Joel Beauvais, acting chief of the EPA's water office, said proposed changes will not be released until next year, with a final rule expected months after that.
Beauvais told Congress that he and others at the EPA "certainly have a sense of urgency" about making changes to the lead and copper rule, but added: "We also want to get them right."
Flint's drinking water became tainted when the city switched from the Detroit water system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. The impoverished city was under state control at the time. The crisis has affected some 100,000 residents of the predominantly African-American city.
Regulators failed to ensure the water was treated properly and lead from aging pipes leached into the water supply.
Elevated lead levels have been found in at least 325 people, including 221 children. Lead contamination has been linked to learning disabilities and other problems.
The lead and copper rule, part of the federal Safe Water Drinking Act, requires water systems across the country to monitor drinking water to ensure that lead, copper and other substances do not exceed federal recommendations.
The rule is widely considered flawed. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder called it "dumb and dangerous" at a hearing last month. Unless the federal rule is changed, "this tragedy will befall other American cities," Snyder said.
EPA chief Gina McCarthy, speaking at the same March 17 hearing, said the federal rules "definitely need clarification, they need to be strengthened, and we're taking a look at that."
Beauvais repeated that message at a hearing Wednesday, telling the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the EPA has been "actively working on revisions" to the lead and copper rule for more than two years — well before the Flint crisis was declared a public health emergency in October 2015. An advisory council that has been studying the issue recommended extensive changes in December, Beauvais said.
"We're working hard on it. We hope to get it right," he said.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the energy panel's chairman, urged the agency to speed up its work, saying 2017 is "a long ways off."
A bipartisan bill to provide federal funds to help Flint is idling in the Senate, stalled by the objections of Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah who argues against adding to the nation's deficit.