New Limits Established for Arsenic in Drinking Water (1/02)

The following column by GAP Senior Advisor John Dragonetti is reprinted from the January/February 2002 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

When Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in 1996, it directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop a new standard for arsenic levels in the nation's drinking water. For nearly fifty years the national standard has been set at 50 parts per billion (ppb). Under the amended the act, EPA was to establish a research strategy to support the rulemaking process as well as to clarify the health risks associated with arsenic exposure. This process has taken the agency several years and resulted in several reports from the EPA Science Advisory Board and the National Academy of Sciences's National Research Council (NRC). According to the 1999 NRC report entitled Arsenic in Drinking Water, the 50 ppb standard did not "achieve the EPA's goal for public health protection" and that it should be revised down "as promptly as possible," but the report did not say what level the standard should be lowered to in order to protect public health.

In June 2000, the EPA requested public comments on the four possible options for a revised limit: 3, 5, 10, and 20 ppb. After reviewing the comments and other reports on both the health and cost aspects of decreasing the standard, the EPA announced that it would move forward with the adoption of a 10 ppb national standard. On January 22, 2001, the EPA reported in the Federal Register that the 10 ppb regulation would go into effect starting in March and that water systems would have until 2006 to fully implement the standard. The incoming Bush Administration placed a hold on this announcement, and several other standards, in order to review them and possibly revise them further. As part of the review, the administration commissioned the NRC to do a second study, specifically addressing any new data available that might require any modification in the proposed standard. The study update, which was released in September 2001, noted that the studies in Taiwan and northern Chile used in previous attempts to develop a lower limit for arsenic exposure are adequate to determine health risks -- an issue that many groups had in the use of a linear no-threshold model for establishing risks.

Recent Action
As a Halloween gift to the nation, EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman announced that the agency would adopt the previously announced revised arsenic standard of 10 ppb, down from the long-standing 50 ppb. Whitman said in her letter to Congress announcing the adoption, "a standard of 10 ppb protects public health based on the best available science and ensures that the cost of the standard is achievable." The months of review have not changed the implementation date for water systems, which must meet the revised standards by 2006 or apply for a temporary exemption. Many environmental groups strongly support an even lower standard of 3 ppb, but agriculture, forestry, and industrials groups have voiced strong opposition to such a low standard, and even in some cases the 10 ppb level, as being too great of an economic burden for smaller water systems.

Whitman also announced that the EPA has earmarked $20 million to develop cost-effective technologies to help smaller community systems to meet the new standard. Several members of Congress have applauded the EPA action but believe that there needs to be more done to address the issues facing smaller water systems and regions with extremely high level of naturally occurring arsenic. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced that would provide grants to help meet the revised standard. Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who introduced the Senate version of the legislation (S. 305), praised the new limit but stated in a press release that "communities will need help if they are to comply with the standard." S. 305 and its House companion bill, H.R. 1178, introduced by Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nevada), would amend the SDWA to establish a $750 million fund for States and Native American Tribes to help provide the needed capital to improve infrastructure and achieve the new 10 ppb standard.

House Science Hearing
Shortly before Administrator Whitman announced the adoption on the 10 ppb standard, the revised arsenic limits had been the topic of several reports and a hearing on Capitol Hill. In early October, the House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards heard testimony concerning three reports that addressed the state of the knowledge on the science, benefits, and costs of regulating arsenic in drinking water. In addition to the updated NRC report on arsenic in drinking water, the subcommittee heard from witnesses regarding reports by the EPA Science Advisory Board and the National Drinking Water Advisory Committee, which commented on the need for the EPA to look closely at the costs associated with a revised standard. Both reports made recommendations that EPA should look at the possibility of setting standards by system size, to help make sure that the cost-benefit ratio is attainable for smaller communities. Testimony by the National Rural Water Association's representative anticipates dramatically increased water costs in the smaller systems and suggested that Congress work to create a "Sustainability Fund" as an extension of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. Some of the witnesses who oppose the 10 ppb standard claimed that the standard was based on policy rather than science.

The Future
According to a Congressional Research Service report on arsenic, only 753 of the nation's 54,352 community water systems serve more than 50,000 people. Over 96 percent of the community water systems subject to the EPA action are small systems that service less than 10,000 people. In addition to the funding for the development of cost-effective technologies, the federal government will need to provide technical assistance and training for operators of small systems with the intent of reducing compliance costs. There will also be an effort to assist small communities to maximize grants and loans under the State Revolving Fund and Rural Utilities Service programs. Just because the EPA has announced the adoption of a 10 ppb standard does not mean that the issue of arsenic in drinking water is now off the congressional radar.

This column is a bimonthly feature written by John J. Dragonetti, CPG-02779, who is Senior Advisor to the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.

Posted May 13, 2002

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