Natural Resources Defense Council Sues EPA

Updated: Thu, Jun 28 1:14 PM EDT

By JOHN HEILPRIN, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - An environmental group is taking the Bush administration to court over its decision to suspend tighter arsenic standards for drinking water that had been adopted by former President Clinton.

The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Environmental Protection Agency and its administrator, Christie Whitman, for ignoring a June 22 congressional deadline for having a new plan to reduce arsenic levels.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and several of her Democratic colleagues - including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer of New York, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Harry Reid of Nevada - said they would file papers in support of the NRDC's lawsuit.

"When Congress sets a deadline, we don't mean for it to be ignored," Boxer said Thursday. "Clearly, what the Bush administration is doing is very harmful to the health of our people ... and they are turning their back on the law."

The goal is to force the EPA to revert to the Clinton standard that would allow no more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic in tap water. The current standard is 50 ppb.

The twin actions, alleging the administration violated provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Administrative Procedures Act by suspending the Clinton standard, are to be filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Erik D. Olson, a senior attorney with the NRDC, whose prior lawsuits have pushed the EPA to obey deadlines, said Bush's action threatens the health of millions of Americans.

"There is absolutely no scientific or legal excuse for delaying or weakening protection of the public from arsenic," he said. "It's clear that the Bush administration is simply thumbing its nose at Congress and at the law by suspending this important arsenic protection."

Last fall, Congress amended the 1974 Safe Water Drinking Act and ordered the EPA to adopt a new arsenic standard by this summer.

Clinton announced the 10 ppb standard three days before leaving office in January. But the Bush administration suspended it until next February, leaving in place at least for the meantime the current 50 ppb arsenic standard established in 1942.

The administration has said the EPA doesn't have enough evidence to justify the $200 million annual cost to municipalities, states and industry of meeting the Clinton standard by 2006.

Whitman spokeswoman Tina Kreisher said the EPA still will set a new arsenic standard for communities to comply with starting five years from now.

"We are not missing the important deadlines," she said. "The earliest compliance date is in 2006 and we will not miss that date. A new, lower standard than the 50 ppb will be in place."

Whitman has asked the National Academy of Sciences to study the risk factors involved in setting the standard at anywhere from 3 ppb to 20 ppb. She also has convened an EPA working group to study costs to local communities.