October 1998

Nebraska Calls for Changes in the "Lead and Copper Rule"

Copper Applications in Health & Environment


Citing a lack of evidence that the copper levels in their drinking water are a health concern and the tremendous cost of bringing their water into compliance with federal regulations, municipalities in Nebraska are attempting to gain relief from the burdens of complying with the Environmental Protection Agency's "Lead and Copper Rule."

The Controversy

The Environmental Protection Agency's "Lead and Copper Rule" sets maximum limits on the amount of copper allowed in drinking water. These limits are based on anecdotal case histories which are under attack for allegedly providing a misleading picture on the amount of copper it takes to cause stomach upset and other similar problems. Scott Baker, Assistant Director for The Environmental Program at the International Copper Association (ICA) told Innovations, "The EPA is in a bind. The Agency knows its drinking water standard for copper is based on weak information, but it's regulations have to rely on the best available information they have in regulating for public health protection."

The EPA has indicated that it does not believe there is a serious health problem in Nebraska. Chuck Fox, Assistant Administrator of the USEPA's Office of Water in Washington, was quoted in the August 15 Omaha World-Herald as saying, "Nebraskans should not suffer under the idea that their water is contaminated. It's not contaminated." The World-Herald further paraphrases Fox as saying Nebraska has high quality drinking water.

In order to help provide better data for copper portion of the Lead and Copper Rule, ICA, with EPA's involvement in peer review, is sponsoring new research that will be used to provide a stronger foundation for determining the maximum level of copper in drinking water.

Nebraska's political leaders also favor new research into the issue. Sen. Chuck Hagel, leading the state's five House and Senate members, wrote to USEPA Administrator Carol Browner urging the agency to, "reexamine the scientific studies used to establish the 1.3 mg/L action level for copper." In a statement before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies in April, Hagel stated, "While the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed to protect human health, these standards released by EPA are not based on sound science."

Many believe the research will show that the maximum copper levels can be safely raised with no negative effects to the public. Dr. Dale T. Peters of the Copper Development Association Inc. (CDA) told Innovations that it was his understanding that the copper levels in the disputed areas were typically no more than a factor of two over the 1.3 mg/L "action level" (although some samples were greater than 3 times the action level) in the Lead and Copper Rule. This action level is intentionally a very conservative number. The World Health Organization has tentatively recommended an acceptable rate of intake (AROI) copper concentration at 2.0 mg/L in drinking water.


Some residential homes in the State of Nebraska have water which exceeds the 1.3 mg/l maximum copper action level specified in the Lead and Copper Rule. This is because they have hard, low pH waters which may cause copper to leach from plumbing tube. Very high levels of copper in drinking water can cause temporary stomach upset, nausea, and possibly cramps and diarrhea. It is very expensive to bring the water into compliance because most water utilities in Nebraska do not have treatment facilities that would allow them to raise the pH of the water. This is because most of the municipal tap water in Nebraska comes from deep aquifers and does not otherwise require treatment.

Costs of Compliance

The EPA has determined that the tap water of sixty-four systems in Nebraska is out of compliance. The State of Nebraska is asking the EPA not to force these utilities to comply with these copper-control regulations until a thorough investigation of health risks, costs, and benefits is completed.

Senators, Congressional Representatives, local governments, and water system officials in Nebraska have indicated that complying with the Copper Rule would create a severe economic burden for the state. Marvin Schultes, Manager of Nebraska's Hastings Utilities told Innovations (see Q & A with Hastings Utilities) that for his company alone the "... initial expense to install treatment equipment at the 28 sites of local wells, would be $1 million. Annual expenses, thereafter, are estimated at $250,000. Given the water department annual revenues, local rates would rise from 10 to 20 percent due to those costs."

The EPA has indicated a willingness to be flexible in applying the Copper Rule. The Omaha World-Herald story quotes Fox with respect to the Nebraska situation as saying, "Our goal here is to tailor-make solutions for the communities based on the threats that they face."

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