EPA plans to reverse Clinton Administration’s arsenic rule

The US Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it plans to withdraw the pending stricter arsenic standard for drinking water introduced in the Clinton Administration’s final days.


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On 20 March EPA Administrator Christie Whitman made the announcement proposing to withdraw the rule which would have reduced the acceptable level of arsenic in water from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb (see related story), issued on 22 January. The reason behind the move, Whitman says, is that although she recognises that the level needs to be lowered, “the scientific indicators are unclear as to whether the standard needs to go as low as 10 ppb”.

While scientists agree that the previous standard should be lowered, there is no consensus on a particular safe level, EPA says. Independent review of the science behind the final standard will help clear up uncertainties that have been raised about the health benefits of reducing arsenic to 10 parts per billion in drinking water. Therefore, EPA will seek independent reviews of both the science behind the standard and of the estimates of the costs to communities of implementing the rule and a final decision on withdrawal is expected after the public has an opportunity to comment. The Agency 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.

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. EPA estimates the cost to be about $200 million per year and says 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.

“I am committed to safe and affordable drinking water for all Americans,” Whitman said, announcing the move. “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.”

“This decision will not lessen any existing protections for drinking water,” she added. “The standards would remain the same, whether the rule went through or not, until it was time to enforce it under the compliance schedule five to nine years from now, but, in the interim, EPA will examine what may have been a rushed decision.”

Environmentalists are far from happy with the move, however. “Last week President Bush sent clean air standards up in smoke (see related story), this week he’s selling clean water rules down the river,” said League of Conservation Voters President Deb Callahan. “The Bush administration is hindering the efforts of communities across the U.S. to reduce air pollution, clean up drinking water and protect key forests and wilderness areas from development.”

Arsenic occurs naturally in several parts of the country with the highest concentrations mostly in the Western states, particularly in the Southwest.

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