EPA drops rule on arsenic in water Clinton-era tighter standard questioned

By Miguel Llanos


March 20 — Questioning the science behind the standard, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday it plans to withdraw a Clinton-era rule that tightened how much arsenic is allowed in drinking water. The EPA echoed concerns voiced by the mining industry and some states and said it would begin a new review. Environmentalists criticized the move, noting it follows President Bush’s reversal last week on carbon dioxide emissions, a decision that benefits coal miners and power plants.

EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman issued a press release Tuesday stating that the Clinton rule "may have been a rushed decision" by its promulgation on Jan. 18.

"I want to be sure that the conclusions about arsenic in the rule are supported by the best available science," Whitman added. The rule is to be withdrawn after a public comment period.


The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental organization, said it would sue to reverse the order. The group blasted the decision, calling it "a craven capitulation to the mining industry and other corporate interests at the expense of the health of millions of Americans."

The group noted that the standard matches that adopted by the World Health Organization and that the science that went into it includes a 1999 National Academy of Sciences report.

"This outrageous act is just another example of how the polluters have taken over the government," said NRDC attorney Erik Olson, noting the president’s decision last week not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Citing campaign finance data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the group said Bush had received more money from the mining industry during the presidential campaign than any other federal candidate. The mining industry also gave $5.6 million to the Republican Party last year, it said, compared with less than $900,000 to Democrats.


The National Mining Association has been a vocal opponent of the standard, calling the Clinton-era rule "a political decision ... not supported by science."

"EPA itself admitted it was ‘unable to specify a safe threshold level’ and EPA’s own Science Advisory Board criticized the proposed rule as unjustified by the evidence and prohibitively expensive," the association said in a press release earlier this month when it joined the states of New Mexico and Nebraska as well as some Western water utilities in filing a lawsuit in federal court.

Association spokesman John Grasser said that mines don’t leave arsenic as a waste product and that the industry’s opposition is based on the fact than many mines are in Western states, which tend to have higher arsenic levels in their water. Arsenic is a natural chemical found throughout the planet.

Grasser added that the Clinton standard would have imposed high costs on mines to reduce arsenic in water used by crews for showering and routine operations.

The association contended that the agency had "seriously underestimated" the costs of compliance, particularly for small water systems and individual households, and "disregards entirely" the implications for industry.

The group also noted that Congress had extended the EPA’s deadline for the final rule until June 22, 2001, only to see the Clinton administration issue the regulation on Jan. 18, just before President Bush took office.

"It appears the [Bush] EPA is following congressional intent," Grasser said.


The Clinton-era rule updated a 60-year-old standard and requires about 3,000 communities — generally small water systems — to make changes in the treatment of drinking water.

Environmentalists have argued for years that the arsenic standard of 50 parts per billion (ppb) should be tightened. Last year, the EPA proposed going to 5 parts per billion as demanded by many environmentalists, but then settled at 10 parts per billion.

Whitman, in her press release, said that "certainly the standard should be less than 50 ppb, but the scientific indicators are unclear as to whether the standard needs to go as low as 10 ppb."

Efforts to tighten the federal requirement gained momentum after a National Academy of Sciences report in 1999 found that arsenic in drinking water causes bladder, lung and skin cancer and might cause kidney and liver cancer.

The EPA also had been sued by the NRDC, which claimed the EPA had been negligent in not moving quickly to lower the standard.


Water industry representatives had lobbied for 10 parts per billion, the standard for the World Health Organization. They said the earlier proposed 5 parts-per-billion standard would have cost $5 billion.

And while the mining industry didn’t like the 10 parts-per-billion standard eventually adopted by the EPA, the American Water Works Association welcomed it, albeit with a note of caution.

"The rule strengthens public health protection, but at a significant cost," Executive Director Jack Hoffbuhr said in a statement asking Congress to provide financial aid to the hardest-hit communities.

"With some help from Congress," he added, "communities will be able to find the financial balance necessary to promote the health of their residents."


The Clinton EPA estimated its new standard would increase the annual water bill $60 or less per household in communities where improved treatment and upgrades are needed. Some financial and technical assistant would be available for small systems needing to make improvements to meet the new standard, the Clinton EPA said.

All the 54,000 community water systems, serving about 254 million people, would be subject to the new standard. But the Clinton EPA said that only about 5 percent, or 3,000 systems serving 13 million people, would have to upgrade their systems.

Most of the systems affected by the standard serve fewer than 10,000 people. The Clinton EPA said communities in parts of the Midwest and New England that depend on underground sources for drinking water would be affected most.



The arsenic around us
  • Arsenic occurs naturally, being the 20th most common element in the Earth’s crust and the 12th most common element in the human body.
  • Arsenic is added to the environment by weathering of rocks, burning of fossil fuels, smelting of ores and manufacturing. It is widely distributed in nature and is mainly transported in the environment by water.
  • Arsenic exposure can cause a variety of adverse effects. Acute high-dose oral exposure typically leads to gastrointestinal irritations and difficulty in swallowing, thirst, abnormally low blood pressure, and convulsions. Death may occur from cardiovascular collapse at very high doses.
  • Evidence exists that long-term exposure to high arsenic levels increases the risk of cancer. When exposure is by inhalation, the primary effect is increased risk of lung cancer. When exposure is by ingestion, the clearest effect is increased risk of skin cancer. Evidence also exists that the risk of internal cancer (liver, lung, bladder, and kidney) is also increased through ingestion.
  • For most people, the most significant route of exposure to arsenic is through food since it is a normal component of diet. Studies by the Food and Drug Administration have found that fish and seafood are higher in arsenic content than any other foods.
  • Ingestion of drinking water can be a source of arsenic exposure. Several national surveys of drinking water systems have found arsenic in 3 to 39 percent of all samples averaging less than 10 parts per billion.
  • Arsenic concentrations are generally highest in groundwater. Surface water concentrations also may be at levels of regulatory concern.