WASHINGTON — Just months after a new standard took effect to limit levels of arsenic in drinking water, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) will introduce a measure today to suspend enforcement of the rule for small water systems, including more than 100 in California.
Craig spokesman Dan Whiting said a moratorium on civil penalties was needed to ease the financial burden on water systems that serve 10,000 customers or less.
"These are extremely small communities who just don't have the resources," Whiting said.
"This will make sure small districts don't get hammered."
The standard for arsenic -- set in the last days of the Clinton administration but rescinded early in 2001 after President Bush took office -- eventually was reinstated and took effect in January.
The rule sets the limit on arsenic, a known carcinogen, to 10 parts per billion in tap water, down from 50 parts per billion.
The Craig measure, an amendment to an appropriations bill to be voted on by a Senate committee, would also exempt small water systems from complying with rules limiting the amount of byproducts in drinking water from disinfection processes, including chlorination.
Those byproducts have been linked to miscarriages and birth defects.
Environmental activists decried the Craig proposal and said they would work to keep it from becoming law.
Erik Olson, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the suspension amendment would be the first step toward a two-tiered drinking water system in the United States, one where "you have better water for people in larger towns and cities and horrible water for people in smaller communities."
Olson added: "This would basically say that if you're in a small community, you don't deserve high quality water."
Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment and tends to accumulate in slow-moving water sources in arid climates.
It is also a byproduct of mining operations.
According to data from the California Department of Health Services, 286 water systems -- including some in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties -- do not meet the federal arsenic standard. Of those, about 140 systems serve communities of 10,000 or less.
The Craig amendment would suspend enforcement of the tougher arsenic limit for one year or until the Environmental Protection Agency completes an "affordability" policy that would permit variances for small systems with low-income residents.
EPA officials say that policy should be completed by the end of 2006; enforcement of the arsenic standard is not set to begin until 2007.
Jennifer Persike, media director of the Assn. of California Water Agencies, said its members -- all public water agencies -- did not object to the new arsenic standard.
"It is an expensive rule to implement, and it will be a burden for some of the smaller systems," Persike said. "This is an issue we have been discussing for a decade, so they have been working on solutions."