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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.

March 21, 2001|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — EPA Administrator Christie Whitman on Tuesday rescinded a Clinton administration decision that would have significantly reduced the amount of arsenic allowed in the nation's drinking water.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 averages 4.2.

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 comment.

On Tuesday, Whitman defended her decision on the arsenic issue.

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