Legal challenge speeds up arsenic reduction proposal

The US EPA has got the go-ahead to propose a reduction of the current standard for arsenic in drinking water to 5 ppb after environmentalists launched a legal challenge against a US Government department that was blocking the proposal.

The proposal on new arsenic standards has been in the offing since a March 1999 report by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that the current standard of 50 ppb – first introduced in 1942 – does not achieve EPA’s goal of protecting public health and should be lowered as soon as possible. This was followed last month by a US Geological Survey (USGS) report which estimated that up to 10% of groundwater sources in the US could exceed the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline for arsenic of 10 micrograms per litre (see related story).

However, the proposal, which had been blocked by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), was only made when the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a suit against both the OMB and the EPA.

“This proposal is a triumph of science over a 25 year-long industry campaign to obstruct an arsenic standard that would protect the public,” said Erik Olson, an NRDC senior attorney.

Although the NAS report recommended that the EPA should reduce the allowable level of arsenic in drinking water supplies from 50 ppb to 10ppb in drinking water – which US industry backed – the EPA is proposing a larger reduction, to 5 ppb.

The proposed standard is intended to prevent long-term, chronic exposure to arsenic in drinking water. The standard will apply to all 54,000 community water systems, serving approximately 254 million people. The EPA estimates that 12%, or 6,600, of these water systems, serving 22.5 million people, will have to take corrective action to lower the current levels of arsenic in their drinking water. Of the affected systems, 94% serve fewer than 10,000 people.

The EPA also estimates that, for systems that require corrective action to meet the new standard, annual household costs will average $28 for homes served by large systems and $85 for those served by small systems (those serving fewer than 10,000 people). Over 98% of the cost to water systems will come from adding treatment equipment, chemicals, and oversight of the new treatment.

This is the first time the EPA has proposed a drinking water standard that is higher than the technically feasible level (3 ppb). The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) requires EPA to determine the health goal, then to set the standard as close to the goal as technically feasible. The 1996 Amendments to SDWA for the first time granted EPA discretionary authority, if it determines that the technically feasible level does not justify the costs, to adjust the standard to a level “that maximizes health risk reduction benefits at a cost that is justified by the benefits.”

The NRDC has called for an even lower standard of 3 ppb. To complicate matters, the OMB has instructed EPA to consider a standard of as high as 20 ppb. There will be a 90-day public comment period following today’s announcement.

When asked by edie why OMB is lobbying for a level that is twice the one that industry has already agreed to meet, a NRDC spokesperson said: “We can only speculate. It’s possible some industries might be putting pressure on the administration for a higher standard. I know the mining industry is not happy about the proposal, and the US Army has some problems with arsenic at its bases. Who knows who’s whispering OMB’s ears: it doesn’t make sense.”

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