EPA Administrator Christie Whitman on Tuesday rescinded a Clinton administration decision that would have significantly reduced the amount of arsenic allowed in the nation’s drinking water.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.
“I am committed to safe and affordable drinking water for all Americans,” Whitman said. “I want to be sure that the conclusions about arsenic in the rule are supported by the best available science.”
But environmentalists stressed that the science is persuasive about the health effects of arsenic in drinking water. A 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences determined that it causes bladder, lung and skin cancer, and may cause kidney and liver cancer.
The report concluded that the current EPA cap on arsenic in drinking water “does not achieve EPA’s goal for public health protection and therefore requires downward revision as promptly as possible.”
The report concluded that the current EPA standard “could easily” result in a total cancer risk of 1 in 100--a risk about 10,000 times higher than the EPA would allow for carcinogens in food.
“This decision will force millions of Americans to continue to drink arsenic-laced water,” said Erik D. Olson, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has advocated for arsenic levels as low as 3 parts per billion. “Many will die from arsenic-related cancers and other disease, but George Bush apparently doesn’t care. This outrageous act is just another example of how the polluters have taken over the government.”
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whose state includes many water systems with high levels of arsenic, complained that the Whitman decision will delay efforts by cash-strapped communities to find funding to clean up their water. He has introduced legislation to help small, rural communities upgrade their drinking water systems to meet arsenic standards.
“Instead of supporting legislation to provide funding for communities to meet the cost of a more protective arsenic standard, the Bush administration would rather sacrifice public health in order to score political points,” Reid said. “The agency’s move also discourages communities from moving forward with improvements in their own water systems.”
But Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), whose state also has many water systems with higher levels of arsenic, was thrilled by the decision. “Communities faced with the daunting task of finding the money to adhere to the stricter standards can breathe a sigh of relief,” Domenici said.
Water suppliers throughout California also welcomed the ruling, saying more scientific review was necessary before setting a costly standard.
“It’s always a good idea to review the available science. You’ve got to make certain you are addressing health concerns as well as what the industry can and cannot do,” said Mic Stewart, water-quality section manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
One of the groups that filed a petition in U.S. District Court to stop the new standard was the Western Coalition of Arid States, which represents about 125 water and waste-water utilities in seven Western states, including California.
“We think the whole thing was a rush to judgment,” said Doug Karafa, spokesman for the group. “And the numbers were set more on politics than on science.”
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Arsenic Levels in Water
These California water systems are among utilities across the nation that serve at least 10,000 people and have the highest average arsenic levels. Current federal regulations allow up to 50 parts per billion of arsenic.
Water system County Arsenic level (parts per billion) City of Hanford Kings 51 City of Chino Hills San Bernardino 30 Arvin Comm. Serv. Dist. (Kern County) Kern 30 California Men’s Colony San Luis Obispo 26 U.S. Army, Ft. Irwin San Bernardino 25 City of Corcoran Kings 23 City of Delano Kern 23 Indian Wells Valley W.D. Kern 23 City of Lemoore Kings 21 City of Lakewood Los Angeles 15 L.A. Co. Water Dist. 4 & 34 (Lancaster) Los Angeles 15 Hillcrest Water Co. 1,2,3 and 4 Sutter 13 SCWC-Artesia Los Angeles 13 Elk Grove Water Works Sacramento 13 East Niles CSD Kern 12 SCWMD Laguna/Vineyard Sacramento 12 Truckee-Donner PUD, Main Nevada 11 Bellflower-Somerset MWC Los Angeles 11 City of Galt Sacramento 11
Source: Natural Resources Defense Council
Times staff writer Marla Cone contributed to this story.