By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Thursday proposed retooling a 1991 rule on lead and cooper contamination in drinking water, but critics said the change slows by 20 years the timeline for removing aging lead service lines that could expose children to a toxin known to harm developing brains.

Andrew Wheeler, the Environmental Protection Agency chief, said at an event in Wisconsin that the plan would “ensure all Americans have access to clean drinking water.”

Under the rule, community water systems would be required among other things to identify the most impacted areas to find and fix sources of lead when a sample in a home exceeds 15 parts per billion.

The EPA said water systems would also have to follow new, improved sampling procedures and adjust sampling sites to better target locations with higher lead levels.

Critics say the rule slows down the removal of service lines where levels exceed 15 parts per billion to 33 years from the 13 years in the original rule.

Health advocates estimate that as many as 6 million or more lead water lines remain underground in U.S. cities and towns.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can damage brains and cause behavior and stomach problems. There is no safe level of lead in drinking water and children are particularly vulnerable, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The plan is part of the EPA’s policy of consulting with state and local officials, or national organizations that represent them, when developing regulations. While the administration is focused on easing regulations on mining and drilling and other industries, the EPA has said it is focused on tackling water pollution, which it calls a core duty of the agency.

Wheeler said the proposal would ensure that more local water systems would act to prevent lead exposure especially in schools and child care facilities. The rule establishes for the first time a 10 parts per billion “trigger level” that would compel water systems to identify those actions.

“There is no safe level of lead in water and we need to remove all lead service lines in our communities to protect families and children,” said Representative Dan Kildee, a Democrat and native of Flint, Michigan, which suffered lead contamination crisis beginning in 2015.

“We need urgent action and bold investments to rebuild America’s water infrastructure, not weakened policies that fail to protect the health and safety of our citizens,” Kildee said.

Rob Hayes, a clean water associate at Environmental Advocates of New York, said the proposal is a step backward.

“Once again, the Trump administration has left public health out to dry.”

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner)