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EPA moves to tighten safeguards on drinking water

The agency identifies four cancer-causing compounds for regulation, and it pledges to move faster on reviewing other contaminants.

March 23, 2010|By Jim Tankersley

Reporting from Washington — The Environmental Protection Agency announced plans on Monday to overhaul its efforts to safeguard drinking water and to tighten restrictions on four waterborne compounds that can cause cancer.

Officials said the steps would help regulators identify new contaminants faster and move quickly with new technologies to prevent harm to consumers. Environmentalists expressed hope that the moves will break a regulatory logjam at the EPA, which has not listed a new water contaminant for regulation in more than a decade.

Currently, the EPA examines potential contaminants one by one, a process that can drag on for years and drain resources. As part of the overhaul, the EPA will begin to consider contaminants in groups -- such as pesticides, disinfection byproducts or volatile organic compounds.

"To confront emerging health threats, strained budgets and increased needs -- today's and tomorrow's drinking-water challenges -- we must use the law more effectively and promote new technologies," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a release.

"To make our drinking-water systems work harder, we have to work smarter," she said.

Jackson also said the agency would move to tighten limits on four contaminants that can cause cancer, because scientific advancements allow them to be detected at lower levels.

The compounds include tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene, which are used in industrial and textile processes, along with acrylamide and epichlorohydrin, which enter water during the treatment process.

Officials did not release potential new limits on those compounds, though in a proposal posted on the EPA's website, the agency suggested it could feasibly reduce the amount of trichloroethylene in water to one-tenth of current levels.

Environmentalists have raised alarms in recent years that new batches of contaminants, such as discarded pharmaceuticals, were making their way into drinking water without regulation. They expressed cautious optimism Monday that new procedures could bring federal limits on such contaminants more quickly.

Reviewing compounds in groups is "obviously a more effective and efficient way of going after drinking-water contaminants," said Mae Wu, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who works on water issues. "That would definitely be an improvement."

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