WASHINGTON — Consumer activist Ralph Nader charged Tuesday that the Reagan Administration and state and local governments are neglecting to protect public drinking water supplies, leaving "millions of Americans utterly defenseless" against thousands of unmonitored toxic contaminants.
Nader released findings of a study indicating that almost one in five of the relatively few public water systems that have been tested contains unregulated toxic chemicals--some of which can cause cancer, congenital defects and other ailments. Nader said that the research, conducted over 18 months by his Center for the Study of Responsive Law, pointed up "a national disgrace."
"What this study reveals for the first time," said biologist and Nader associate Walter Hang, "is that the presumption in America has to be (that) the water may not be safe to drink."
Federal and state officials called the findings "sensationalized" and discounted Nader's criticism. "I doubt if there's any water safer to drink than that in the United States," declared Robert Miller, principal engineer with California's Department of Water Resources.
Assay Results Compiled
In the study, which compiled results of local, state and federal water tests and surveys from the last decade, California water supplies ranked only average. The report said that 18% of the 2,947 California water sources tested in 1985 contained unregulated contaminants.
Hang said that the "staggering amount of dumps" in California that fail to secure wastes properly has left the state's drinking water contaminated with at least 23 substances known to cause health problems--a number higher than that found in any state except Nebraska.
"There's no question that California is going to have severe drinking water problems in the future. The only question is when and to what extent," he said.
Miller, however, said in a telephone interview from Sacramento that Nader and his associates are needlessly stirring up public fear over "a problem that hasn't been proven to exist."
The report's conclusions are "essentially meaningless," he said. "Just saying (the drinking water) is contaminated doesn't tell us anything--contaminated compared to what, at what risk? Everything is contaminated in some way or another."
EPA Called 'Derelict'
Although Hang said that state government and municipalities in California and elsewhere could be doing more to remedy the problem, the Nader report was most critical of the Environmental Protection Agency under the Reagan Administration. It said the EPA was "derelict" in its duties.
Nader charged that the EPA, moving at a "disgracefully" slow pace to combat drinking water problems, has employed water treatment techniques better suited to the diseases of a century ago than to those of today. He said the agency has failed repeatedly to set standards on contamination, require extensive local monitoring or enforce current law.
Michael Cook, the EPA's director of drinking water, said the agency is stepping up its monitoring requirements and there has been "a huge increase" in recent years in its enforcement actions against violators.
On the whole, he said, "the vast majority of detections (cited by Nader) are well below a level of concern. . . . The water is generally safe to drink, but it could always be better."