Update: US water standard for arsenic--NY Times

Charles Miller rellim at tulane.edu
Thu Apr 19 09:29:02 EST 2001


>From the New York Times Science Page
April 19, 2001 

E.P.A. Delays Its Decision on Arsenic

By DOUGLAS JEHL

WASHINGTON, April 18 ‹ The Environmental Protection Agency said today that
it would postpone until February a decision on how much arsenic should be
permitted in drinking water. But agency officials said a new rule would
definitely call for a reduction of at least 60 percent from current
allowable levels.

The move bears on one of the most politically delicate decisions of the Bush
administration: a decision to set aside, at least for now, a Clinton- era
rule that would have reduced the arsenic standard by 80 percent. An initial
plan had called for a new standard to be proposed this summer, but the
agency said today that it wanted more time to allow the National Academy of
Sciences to review new studies on arsenic's health effects. A spokesman for
the academy said the review would take about four months.

Aides to Christie Whitman, the E.P.A. administrator, said they intended for
a new rule to be completed by Feb. 22, 2002, and they said its provisions
would become effective in 2006, the same year in which the Clinton standards
were to have taken effect.

Still, the decision leaves in place at least until early next year a
standard of 50 parts per billion, which has been in effect since 1942 and
which the national science panel recommended in 1999 be lowered as soon as
possible, on the ground that it "could easily" result in a 1-in-100 cancer
risk.

The standard approved by the Clinton administration would have lowered the
permissible arsenic level to 10 parts per billion. Mrs. Whitman initially
suggested that the new administration's recommendation would be between the
two figures, but after news of that decision generated widespread criticism
she said more recently that a proposed new rule might even require a
standard stricter than the one proposed by the Clinton administration.

Today, the agency said it had asked the National Academy of Sciences "to
perform an expedited review of a range of 3 to 20 parts per billion for the
establishment of a new drinking water standard." A senior E.P.A. official
who spoke on condition of anonymity said the administration's final rule
would certainly fall within that lower range.

In a statement, Mrs. Whitman said today's action would "ensure that a
standard will be put in place in a timely manner that provides clean, safe
and affordable drinking water for the nation and is based on the best
science." 

The decision to seek a new scientific review was welcomed by representatives
of the mining and wood- finishing industries, which have filed a lawsuit
seeking to block the Clinton standard from taking effect on the ground that
it was not based on adequate science.

But many environmentalists said they regarded the delay as an indication
that the new administration was not serious about addressing the problem of
arsenic. At least 13 million Americans live in communities where the
drinking water contains more arsenic than would have been allowed under the
Clinton standard.

The largest of those communities is Albuquerque.

The critics also questioned whether any new standard could really take
effect in 2006, as the Clinton rule would have, noting that the agency had
acknowledged in its previous rule that it would take water utilities at
least five years to meet the lower threshold. They said that an immediate
effect of the decision would be to postpone until next year the effective
date of a provision that would have required that written health
notifications be provided to water customers whose water contained arsenic
at a level greater than five parts per billion.

"This is a very clear indication that the Bush administration is intending
to delay public health protection and that a weakening of the standard is
likely," said Erik D. Olson, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources
Defense Council, a research and advocacy group. "It's absolutely clear from
a mountain of scientific evidence that the new standard of 10 parts per
billion is critically needed by tens of millions of Americans."

A deadline set by Congress requires the E.P.A. to come up with a new rule by
this June, so the agency's plan for a postponement will require
Congressional approval. But agency officials and environmentalists said they
did not expect that requirement to pose any serious obstacle, noting that
Congress had extended its deadline on arsenic several times.

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