EPA Proposes Revision to Affordability Methodology, Lowering Drinking Water Quality Standards

In response to complaints that small rural communities cannot afford to comply with new standards, the U.S. EPA is proposing to allow higher levels of contaminants such as arsenic in drinking water, the Washington Post reported. The proposal would allow systems serving 10,000 or fewer residents to have three times the level of contaminants allowed under new regulations.

About 50 million people live in communities that would be affected by the proposed change. In the case of arsenic, as many as 10 million Americans are drinking water that does not meet the new federal standards, according to the EPA.

Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Water, said the agency was trying to satisfy Congress, which, in 1996, instructed the EPA to take into account that it costs small rural towns proportionately more to meet federal drinking water standards.

“We're taking the position both public health protection and affordability can be achieved together,” Grumbles said in an interview this week. “When you're looking at small communities, oftentimes they cannot comply with the [current] standard.”

On the other hand, Erik Olson, a senior lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the move a broad attack on public health.

“It could have serious impacts on people's health, not just in small-town America,” Olson said. “It is like overturning the whole apple cart on this program.”

The proposed revision was unveiled in early March in the Federal Register and is subject to public comment until May 1. EPA's new proposal would permit arsenic levels of as much as 30 ppb in some communities’ drinking water.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996, complying with federal drinking water standards is not supposed to cost water systems more than 2.5% of the median U.S. household income, which in 2004 was $44,684, per household served. That means meeting these standards should not cost more than $1,117 per household. Under EPA's proposal, drinking water compliance could not cost more than $335 per household.

Some public officials and environmental experts said they worry it could lead to broad exemptions from the current federal contaminant standards cities and larger towns must also meet. Besides arsenic, other water contaminants including radon and lead pose a health threat in some communities.

James Taft, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, said he and others are concerned that the less stringent standard will “become the rule, rather than the exception” if larger communities press for similar relief.

Avner Vengosh, a geochemistry and hydrology professor at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, said he was surprised by the administration's proposal because North Carolina officials are trying to keep arsenic levels as low as 2 ppb.

“It's a bit ironic you have this loosening in the EPA standard when local authorities are making it more stringent,” Vengosh said, adding that many rural residents “have no clue what they have in the water.”

National Rural Water Association analyst Mike Keegan, who backs the administration's proposal, said the current rule is based on what contaminant levels are economically and technically feasible, rather than what is essential to preserve public health.

The administration may face a fight on Capitol Hill over the proposal. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who helped write the 1996 law, said EPA's proposal, “if finalized, would allow weakened drinking water standards, not just in rural areas, but in the majority of drinking water systems in the U.S.”

Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post

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