WASHINGTON -- Addressing one of the most serious environmental threats to children, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled regulations yesterday that it says will reduce the lead content in Americans' drinking water to a fraction of currently permissible levels.
But while the agency touted the rules as the greatest blow against the lead hazard since the ban on leaded gasoline, critics called them a "tragic disappointment," particularly because water suppliers will have as long as 21 years to comply fully.
The EPA rules, which will be phased in beginning Jan. 1, will require the nation's 79,000 residential water suppliers to monitor lead content at household taps across the country and take steps to reduce concentrations that exceed 15 parts per billion.
The current standard of 50 parts per billion is so lenient it is rarely exceeded.
Under the new requirements, water systems serving more than 50,000 people will be required to begin their monitoring programs by Jan. 1, with medium-sized systems to follow six months later, and small systems by Jan. 1, 1993.
Maryland environmental officials welcomed the new rules but said they would not require major changes in the state's water-supply systems.
"We don't expect there to be large capital expenditures," said John Goheen, a spokesman for the Department of Environment.
Baltimore began replacing lead pipes two years ago, and sampling conducted at 400 taps a month shows that the average lead level in water is about half the 15 ppb level that EPA set yesterday.
"We are a very progressive water system," said George G. Balog, Baltimore's director of public works. "Most of these things we have done voluntarily."
Deputy EPA Administrator Henry Habicht said the overall result of the new program, when fully implemented, will be to provide 10 times more protection against lead than present regulations.
But environmentalists and members of Congress attacked the long-awaited regulations.
Representative Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and the environment, accused the environmental agency of "gross incompetence" and called for EPA Administrator William K. Reilly to appear before the panel Friday.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote Mr. Reilly that his Environment and Public Works subcommittee would also "examine the folly of your decision."
"The current standard is inadequate, and what does EPA do after five years? They come up with an approach that is no standard at all," said Ellen Silbergeld, a toxicologist on the University of Maryland faculty. "It is the most amazing thing I have ever seen."