EPA Catches Flak Over Arsenic


An environmental group filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Environmental Protection Agency for missing a congressional deadline to impose new standards for arsenic in drinking water.

A number of Democratic senators, including Barbara Boxer of California, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Harry Reid of Nevada, immediately endorsed the group's litigation.

The suit, filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, challenges EPA Administrator Christie Whitman's decision in March to rescind a Clinton administration effort to substantially lower allowable arsenic levels in drinking water. It also challenges her failure to meet the June 22 deadline mandated by Congress for proposing new standards.

"We are extremely concerned that the suspension of the arsenic rule will affect tens of millions of Americans," said Erik Olson, senior attorney for the environmental group. "According to the EPA's own data, there are at least 11 million Americans that would have benefited from [the Clinton administration's] January regulation reducing the arsenic levels in their water."

Several senators, including Boxer, joined Olson at a news conference announcing the action, and the legislators will issue a brief to establish their support for the suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Bush administration officials "are turning their backs on the law," Boxer said. "When Congress sets a deadline, we don't mean for it to be ignored."

Although EPA spokeswoman Tina Kreisher declined to respond to the lawsuit directly, she said the administration expects to have a new, lower arsenic standard in place by February 2002, once further studies by the National Academy of Sciences and economic analyses have been completed.

"There have been many congressional deadlines that have been missed before, and we are fine with that," Kreisher said.

In a letter to Boxer last week, Whitman stressed that she intends to implement "a new protective standard substantially lower than the existing 50 parts per billion maximum contaminant level." Whitman wrote that "significant questions and uncertainties" about former President Clinton's January decision to set a 10 ppb standard--the same level used by the European Union and the World Health Organization--forced her to rescind the move, pending further scientific and economic study.

Whitman's new standard will fall within the range of three to 20 ppb, Kreisher said.

In her letter, Whitman noted that even the Clinton standard would not have become enforceable until 2006, adding, "We have every intent of completing our review and setting an appropriate standard for the rule which holds to the 2006 compliance date."

Boxer countered that Whitman "is missing the point. It's not about the 2006 date. It's about the 2001 date."

The National Academy of Sciences has found arsenic to cause bladder, lung and skin cancers, and possibly contribute to kidney and liver cancers. Possible links have also been found between arsenic and birth defects, reproductive problems and nervous system damage.

The administration "is wrong not only from a legal perspective, . . . but it is absolutely wrong from a public health perspective as well," Sen. Clinton said.

Some water utilities have actually backed the 10 ppb standard, and criticized the compressed compliance schedule that will arise from a delayed EPA decision.

"While the standard is in limbo, the enforcement deadlines are not," the California-Nevada section of the American Water Works Assn. wrote to Boxer. "Now the systems affected are facing an unrealistic timeline for compliance, which creates a handicap in meeting this critical public health goal."

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