The man made disaster that is Flint, Michigan actually comprises a lot more than toxic sludge coming out of the drinking fountains, but that’s where the nation’s focus is at the moment. While the government is hard at work (*cough*) trying to come up with a solution, activists are putting pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to step in and make sure we don’t have this sort of problem anywhere else. (Roll Call)

Now health advocates are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to quickly toughen the protections that states must require of local water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Among the mandates on the table is the eventual and costly replacement of all lead pipes in drinking water systems, rather than just those shown to be an immediate threat to health.

The EPA has been holding talks since 2010 on long-term revisions to its Lead and Copper Rule, last updated in 2007 after two years of deliberations.

We would be remiss in our coverage of this story if we didn’t point out the irony and gallows humor in asking the EPA to do something about this. Given their recent track record of poisoning rivers and failing in nearly everything they get their mitts on, telling them to clean up the nation’s potable water supply is akin to calling in Elmer Fudd to supervise gun safety classes. But as unlikely of a savior the agency may be, this actually is one of the assigned jobs of the EPA under the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. But what new mandates will they be able to reasonably hand down to the states to ensure that we (literally) get the lead out of the water?

Short of replacing everything, I’m told by reliable authorities that lead pipes can have a scale of protective coating built up on their interior surfaces, limiting the amount of lead which leaches into the water. This apparently requires introducing lime or other additives to the water supply and flushing all the standing water out of they system. None of that, however, is as good as replacing the pipes with less toxic building materials.

But just having copper piping available isn’t enough. Almost all homes built up until the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes. Also, many major U.S. cities still rely completely on lead piping to bring water from utilities to homes and public buildings. The EPA has already looked at the wider problem and they know there is no quick fix. (Safe Plumbing)

It is essential to the nation’s health that lead piping systems be upgraded, a task estimated by the EPA in 2003 to cost $276.8 billion and take more than 20 years to achieve. In the meantime, the best protection for the U.S. public is the ongoing testing and monitoring of what makes up our drinking water. The amount of lead and other minerals that actually leach into the water is far more critical than how much is used to manufacture the products that come in contact with the drinking water.

Unfortunately this is yet another problem which deals with the entire “crumbling infrastructure” debate taking place today. Much like the power grid, which needs to be much more flexible and able to isolate vulnerable sections during a wide scale outage, the water lines spread out over wide areas affecting pretty much everyone. But unlike the power lines, it’s the state and municipal governments who own and are responsible for the water lines. The lead pipes eventually need to be replaced entirely, but it’s one of those vastly expensive projects (see the quarter trillion dollar estimate above) which people generally don’t want to think about when there’s still (relatively) potable water coming out of the faucet.

If the EPA jumps in with some sort of reactionary mandate saying every pipe in the nation needs to be fixed in the next five years, they’re going to bankrupt a lot of cities and towns. Thus far they’ve resisted anything that drastic, but with this much of a spotlight on the problem they may change their tune. Far better would be a staged approach where the worst offenders get fixed first, slowly rolling it out from there over a number of decades. And yes, it will probably require some federal funding to support the effort, but it may be one of those things we can’t avoid.