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.
General Manager George Hanson's Chesapeake Water Association in Lusby, Md., serves 4,000 town residents with four wells. Three of them meet the new arsenic standard, but one well has 14 parts per billion in its water. He estimated that cleaning it up would cost between $1 million and $4 million.
"It's some of the most beautiful water I've ever seen. The arsenic is the only thing that fouls the entire system," Hanson said, adding that he and other community water suppliers are hoping the new EPA proposal will offer them a way out. "They're waiting for someone to help them."
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 percent 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.
Several public officials and environmental experts said they were just starting to review the administration's plan, but some said they worry that 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 parts per billion.
"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 United States."