EPA Revokes New Arsenic Standards for Drinking Water
Health: Opponents say it is the most recent move
by the Bush team that favors industry over public safety.
WASHINGTON--EPA Administrator Christie Whitman on Tuesday rescinded a
Clinton administration decision that would have significantly reduced the amount of
arsenic allowed in the nation's drinking water.
Outraged environmentalists said the move, combined with
other recent actions, signals a new tendency by Bush administration officials to appease
industry rather than safeguard public health and the environment.
Arsenic levels exceeding the standards that the Clinton
administration sought to impose are found mainly in small water districts in arid, Western
states, including 19 in California.
Whitman acknowledged that arsenic levels permitted under
current federal regulations are too high. But she questioned the level that would have
been allowed under the Clinton ruling and said further study is needed. Her decision also
reflects the determination of appointees of President Bush to give more weight to economic
considerations when making environmental decisions.
"When the federal government imposes costs on
communities, especially small communities, we should be sure the facts support imposing
the federal standard," Whitman said. "I am moving quickly to review the arsenic
standard so communities that need to reduce arsenic in drinking water can proceed with
confidence once the permanent standard is confirmed."
Whitman ordered more scientific and public reviews, and
promised to come to a quick decision on a new standard.
The Clinton standard, which would have gone into effect at
the end of the week, had been challenged in court by several Western states, a group of
Western utilities and the mining industry. They took issue with the science behind the
decision and complained about the cost of coming into compliance.
Current regulations allow arsenic at a level of 50 parts per
billion in tap water. The Clinton administration ruling lowered that level significantly,
to 10 parts per billion. Congress required the EPA to set a new standard for arsenic in
tap water in 1996, but the Clinton administration issued its ruling in the last days of
the administration, along with a flurry of other eleventh-hour rule changes.
Both the European Union and the World Health Organization
have adopted a 10 parts per billion standard for arsenic in drinking water.
Arsenic occurs naturally in the drinking water of several
regions of the country, with the highest concentrations in arid Western states. It can
also be introduced into the environment by various other means, including mining
activities and from certain chemicals used to treat wood. Unsafe levels of arsenic can
cause cancer and other diseases.
The 19 California systems, each serving at least 10,000
people, have average arsenic levels higher than 10 parts per billion, according to a
February 2000 study of EPA data by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Only a small fraction of California's water would have
exceeded the Clinton administration standard--1% of its surface water and 6% of its ground
water, according to the Assn. of California Water Agencies. The arsenic level in most
communities in the region averages around five parts per billion. In Los Angeles, it
Several hundred communities in California would have been
affected by the rule, said Krista Clark, a spokeswoman for the association.
The EPA estimated that the cost per year would be $200
million. But the American Water Works Assn., which represents utilities across the
country, estimated that meeting the Clinton administration's ruling would have cost the
nation's utilities $600 million annually, after a capital investment of $1.4 billion. The
association did not oppose the ruling.
"We were busy trying to ensure that we could implement
[it]," said Doug Marsano, spokesman for the American Water Works Assn.
Tuesday's announcement follows two decisions by the Bush
administration last week that were roundly criticized by environmentalists. One reversed a
Bush campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and the
other stalled implementation of a Clinton administration ban on road building and
commercial logging in 58 million acres of national forests.
"This is the third strike in a week," said Philip
Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. "This administration is
compiling a worse record in 60 days than the [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich Congress
did in two years. Every time an industry shows up with a complaint, this administration
folds like a house of cards."
The rulings on carbon dioxide emission and arsenic in
drinking water land squarely on the turf of Whitman, who was expected to be the most
ecologically friendly member of the Bush environmental team. As EPA chief, she has great
leeway to review and change regulations issued by previous administrations. However, she
has to abide by certain agency procedures, including allowing additional time for public
On Tuesday, Whitman defended her decision on the arsenic
"I am committed to safe and affordable drinking water
for all Americans," Whitman said. "I want to be sure that the conclusions about
arsenic in the rule are supported by the best available science."
But environmentalists stressed that the science is
persuasive about the health effects of arsenic in drinking water. A 1999 report by the
National Academy of Sciences determined that it causes bladder, lung and skin cancer, and
may cause kidney and liver cancer.
The report concluded that the current EPA cap on arsenic in
drinking water "does not achieve EPA's goal for public health protection and
therefore requires downward revision as promptly as possible."
The report concluded that the current EPA standard
"could easily" result in a total cancer risk of 1 in 100--a risk about 10,000
times higher than the EPA would allow for carcinogens in food.
"This decision will force millions of Americans to
continue to drink arsenic-laced water," said Erik D. Olson, senior attorney for the
Natural Resources Defense Council, which has advocated for arsenic levels as low as 3
parts per billion. "Many will die from arsenic-related cancers and other disease, but
George Bush apparently doesn't care. This outrageous act is just another example of how
the polluters have taken over the government."
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whose state includes many water
systems with high levels of arsenic, complained that the Whitman decision will delay
efforts by cash-strapped communities to find funding to clean up their water. He has
introduced legislation to help small, rural communities upgrade their drinking water
systems to meet arsenic standards.
"Instead of supporting legislation to provide funding
for communities to meet the cost of a more protective arsenic standard, the Bush
administration would rather sacrifice public health in order to score political
points," Reid said. "The agency's move also discourages communities from moving
forward with improvements in their own water systems."
But Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), whose state also has
many water systems with higher levels of arsenic, was thrilled by the decision.
"Communities faced with the daunting task of finding the money to adhere to the
stricter standards can breathe a sigh of relief," Domenici said.
Water suppliers throughout California also welcomed the
ruling, saying more scientific review was necessary before setting a costly standard.
"It's always a good idea to review the available
science. You've got to make certain you are addressing health concerns as well as what the
industry can and cannot do," said Mic Stewart, water-quality section manager for the
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
One of the groups that filed a petition in U.S. District
Court to stop the new standard was the Western Coalition of Arid States, which represents
about 125 water and waste-water utilities in seven Western states, including California.
"We think the whole thing was a rush to judgment,"
said Doug Karafa, spokesman for the group. "And the numbers were set more on politics
than on science."
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