U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman has announced that the arsenic standard in drinking water will be 10 parts per billion (ppb). "Throughout this process, I have made it clear that EPA intends to strengthen the standard for arsenic by substantially lowering the maximum acceptable level from 50 parts per billion (ppb), which has been the lawful limit for nearly half a century," Whitman wrote in a letter to the conferees on the Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies appropriations measure.
"The Bush Administration is committed to protecting the environment and the health of all Americans," Whitman said. "This standard will improve the safety of drinking water for millions of Americans, and better protect against the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes."
When the Administrator initiated review of the standard for arsenic, there were indications that additional information was available that had not been considered previously. She asked for time to look at the new science and data that have come to light since the original (1999) study by the National Academy of Sciences on this matter. Whitman also asked that three expert panels review all the new and existing materials. The National Academy of Sciences looked at risk, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council examined costs to water systems throughout the nation and EPA's Science Advisory Board assessed benefits.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle hailed the decision to reinstate the previous standard.
``This decision is a victory for the health of American families,'' the South Dakota Democrat said in a statement. ``Our next job is to provide communities with the resources they need to comply with this standard.''
Whitman today reiterated that the additional study and consultation have not delayed the compliance date for implementing a new standard for arsenic in 2006. "Instead it has reinforced the basis for the decision," said Whitman. "I said in April that we would obtain the necessary scientific and cost review to ensure a standard that fully protects the health of all Americans, we did that, and we are reassured by all of the data that significant reductions are necessary. As required by the Safe Drinking Water Act, a standard of 10 ppb protects public health based on the best available science and ensures that the cost of the standard is achievable."
Many business and mining groups opposed stricter limits on arsenic, saying they would be too costly for many small town water systems.
``More than 90 percent of the towns that will have to comply with this new rule are very small, with just a few thousand or hundred people,'' said Mike Keegan, a spokesman for National Rural Water Association, which represents more than 20,000 small U.S. communities.
``It wouldn't be uncommon to see a tripling of water rates in a town of less than 500 people,'' Keegan added.
The EPA is likely to be sued by communities or businesses, who contend that the agency does not have the authority to order strict new rules unless it provides funding.
Nearly 97 percent of the water systems affected by this rule are small systems that serve less than 10,000 people each. EPA plans to provide $20 million over the next two years for the research and development of more cost-effective technologies. The Agency also will provide technical assistance and training to operators of small systems, which will reduce their compliance costs, Whitman told conferees. EPA will work with small communities to maximize grants and loans under current State Revolving Fund and Rural Utilities Service programs of the Department of Agriculture. Last year EPA provided more than $600 million in grants and loans to water systems for drinking water compliance. "Our goal is to provide clean, safe, and affordable drinking water to all Americans," said Whitman.