By Julie Vorman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration said Wednesday it would reinstate a Clinton-era plan to sharply restrict the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water to help reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
The Environmental Protection Agency was widely criticized in March when it suspended a regulation written by the Clinton administration that would slash the amount of arsenic in tap water to 10 parts per billion (ppb).
The incoming administration said it wanted another study of the health risks before adopting a rule that would be costly to many businesses and small communities.
Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced late Wednesday that the administration would reinstate the 10 ppb limit on arsenic, replacing the 50 ppb standard in effect for decades.
No other developed nation allows 50 ppb of arsenic in its drinking water.
"I said in April that we would obtain the necessary scientific and cost review to ensure a standard that fully protects the health of all Americans, we did that, and we are reassured by all of the data that significant reductions are necessary," Whitman said in a statement.
"A standard of 10 ppb protects public health based on the best available science and ensures that the cost of the standard is achievable," she added.
The new standard must be met by 2006, she said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle hailed the decision to reinstate the previous standard.
"This decision is a victory for the health of American families," the South Dakota Democrat said in a statement. "Our next job is to provide communities with the resources they need to comply with this standard."
Arsenic naturally occurs in groundwater as a result of minerals dissolving over time from rocks and soil, and from industrial run-off. Arsenic concentrations are generally highest in water sources in the West and some parts of the Midwest.
The chemical has been linked to a higher rate of bladder and lung cancer, as well as to heart disease, diabetes and birth defects.
Some US green groups had lobbied for an even tighter standard of three ppb.
Many business and mining groups opposed stricter limits on arsenic, saying they would be too costly for many small town water systems.
"More than 90 percent of the towns that will have to comply with this new rule are very small, with just a few thousand or hundred people," said Mike Keegan, a spokesman for National Rural Water Association, which represents more than 20,000 small US communities.
"It wouldn't be uncommon to see a tripling of water rates in a town of less than 500 people," Keegan added.
The EPA is likely to be sued by communities or businesses, who contend that the agency does not have the authority to order strict new rules unless it provides funding.
Whitman said the EPA would earmark $20 million over the next two years to develop more cost-effective technologies for small towns to meet the standard.
Earlier this year, both the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican House of Representatives passed legislation to force the Bush administration to tighten arsenic limits to at least 10 ppb.
Last month, the National Academies of Science said new studies showed a higher risk of lung or bladder cancer from arsenic than previously thought.