EPA to take new look at
arsenic in drinking water

By Traci Watson and Judy Keen

WASHINGTON -- After weeks of controversy over its environmental policies, the Bush administration said Wednesday it's considering limits on arsenic in drinking water similar to the Clinton-era limit it overruled less than a month ago.

Christie Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced that she has asked the National Academy of Sciences to study the impact of various limits on arsenic in drinking water, ranging from three to 20 parts per billion (ppb). The academy said in 1999 that the current limit of 50 ppb is too high, but it did not recommend a new standard. In response, the Clinton administration set the limit at 10 ppb in its last week in office.

Whitman said last month that she was suspending the Clinton order. She said only that she would choose a limit lower than 50 ppb. But after weeks of derision from environmentalists, Whitman's spokeswoman insisted that new threshold would not be unreasonable. ''In our minds (three to 20) has always been the range,'' EPA spokeswoman Tina Kreisher said.

Bush advisers say Whitman's latest announcement reflects a new approach to environmental regulations. Advisers say they were taken aback by criticism of earlier decisions and want to overcome charges that Bush is the most anti-environment president in years.

But some industry officials are not satisfied. They say Bush has not gone far enough to roll back environmental regulations.

Among the Bush actions that have caused controversy: reneging on a campaign promise to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, suspending a rule on damage from mines, and promoting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

These proposals, which the White House has shown no sign of rejecting, triggered weeks of protest from environmental groups, Capitol Hill Democrats and even some Republicans. To smooth things over, announcements of some initiatives that could anger environmentalists were put on the back burner, and the administration trumpeted several decisions that had a decidedly greener hue.

On Tuesday, Whitman made a public appearance at the White House -- her first -- to say Bush would uphold a Clinton rule about disclosing lead pollution. On Monday, the administration upheld a rule protecting wetlands. And today, Bush is expected to make an announcement about a global treaty on toxins, such as DDT, that persist in the environment.

Many of these recent announcements, including Tuesday's on lead pollution, triggered anger and promises of lawsuits from industry groups that had been among Bush's firmest supporters.

Arsenic, which causes cancer, occurs naturally in groundwater in some parts of the West. It's also released in waste from mines.

Water providers serving large cities grudgingly accept a 20 ppb arsenic standard. But officials at rural water systems say the limits Whitman is considering would be fantastically expensive. They claim New Mexico, for example, would have to spend $400 million to meet a 10 ppb limit.

''We think it's a disaster to go down even to 20,'' said John Jones, a board member of the New Mexico Rural Water Association.

Whitman's olive branch didn't placate environmentalists, either.

''They're sending a signal that . . . they're considering doubling the standard issued in January,'' said Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The new study requested by Whitman is supposed to offer advice on specific limits, filling in the gap left by the earlier report.

''We're calling them as we see them, based on the science,'' Karen Hughes, counselor to the president, said Wednesday.