U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman has announced that EPA will propose to withdraw the pending arsenic standard for drinking water that was issued on January 22. The rule would have reduced the acceptable level of arsenic in water from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb.
EPA will seek independent reviews of both the science behind the standard and the estimates of the costs to communities. A final decision on withdrawal is expected after the public has an opportunity to comment.
"I am committed to safe and affordable drinking water for all Americans," declared Whitman. "I want to be sure that the conclusions about arsenic in the rule are supported by the best available science. When the federal government imposes costs on communities — especially small communities — we should be sure the facts support imposing the federal standard … 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."
While scientists agree that the previous standard of 50 parts per billion should be lowered, there is no consensus on a specific safe level. Independent review of the science behind the final standard will help clear up uncertainties recently raised about the health benefits of reducing arsenic to 10 parts per billion in drinking water.
"It is clear that arsenic, while naturally occurring, is something that needs to be regulated. Certainly the standard should be less than 50 ppb, but the scientific indicators are unclear as to whether the standard needs to go as low as 10 ppb," Whitman said.
Some cities and states that will have to comply with the arsenic rule have raised serious questions about whether the costs of the rule were fully understood when the rule was signed in early January. PA estimates the cost to be about $200 million per year. Many small communities will be affected by the drinking water standard for arsenic, making it especially important to ensure that the Safe Drinking Water Act provision allowing balancing of costs is based on accurate information.
Arsenic is an element that occurs naturally in several parts of the country. The highest concentrations of arsenic occur mostly in the Western states, particularly in the Southwest. At unsafe levels, arsenic causes cancer and other diseases.
EPA now has asked for a 60-day extension of the effective date of the pending arsenic standard for drinking water, and expects to release a timetable for review within the next few weeks.
Whitman plans to attend the Western Governors Association meeting in Denver, Colorado on March 22 and March 23, where she plans to participate in round table discussions on arsenic with stakeholders.