EPA May Weaken Rule on Water Quality

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 1, 2006

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to allow higher levels of contaminants such as arsenic in the drinking water used by small rural communities, in response to complaints that they cannot afford to comply with recently imposed limits.

The proposal would roll back a rule that went into effect earlier this year and make it permissible for water systems serving 10,000 or fewer residents to have three times the level of contaminants allowed under that regulation.

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

Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Water, said the agency was trying to satisfy Congress, which instructed EPA in 1996 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."

But Erik Olson, a senior lawyer for the advocacy group 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 question of how to regulate drinking water quality has roiled Washington for years. Just before leaving office, President Bill Clinton imposed a more stringent standard for arsenic, dictating that drinking water should contain no more than 10 parts per billion of the poison, which in small amounts is a known carcinogen. President Bush suspended the standard after taking office, but Congress voted to reinstate it, and in 2001, the National Academy of Sciences issued a study saying arsenic was more dangerous than the EPA had previously believed. The deadline for water systems to comply with the arsenic rule was January of this year.

The proposed revision was unveiled in early March in the Federal Register and is subject to public comment until May 1. Administration officials said the number of comments they receive will determine when it would take effect.

EPA's new proposal would permit drinking water to have arsenic levels of as much as 30 parts per billion in some communities. This would have a major effect on states such as Maryland and Virginia, which have struggled in recent months to meet the new arsenic rule.

Last summer, the Virginia Department of Health estimated that 11 well-based water systems serving 9,500 people in Northern Virginia might not meet the new standard for arsenic.

Maryland has a high level of naturally occurring arsenic in its water, and its Department of the Environment has estimated that 37 water systems serving more than 26,000 people now exceed the 10-parts-per-billion arsenic limit. These include systems serving several towns as well as individual developments, mobile home parks, schools and businesses in Dorchester, Caroline, Queen Anne's, Worcester, Garrett, St. Mary's and Talbot counties.

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