EPA Toughens Water-Systems Arsenic Limits Impact Utah
Friday, February 2, 2001

   Sometime this month, about 50 drinking-water utility managers in Utah will be notified their water systems fail to meet a new federal standard for arsenic.
    When they read what it will cost to comply, they might prefer the arsenic -- in large doses.
    "There is going to be a tremendous cost," said Larry Scanlan, an arsenic expert for the Utah Division of Drinking Water.
    Scanlan puts the price tag in Utah at $63 million.
    Nationwide, 5 percent of water utilities are expected to be out of compliance. Most of them are in the West. The cost of compliance could exceed $5 billion, making the new arsenic standard one of the most expensive drinking water regulations ever, according to the American Water Works Association.
    For large water utilities, such as the Kearns Improvement District, removing arsenic from its eight arsenic-tainted wells will be virtually painless. The cost is estimated at $1.7 million, or about $138 per household -- an amount that could be easily absorbed over five years.
    Go to a small community like Delta, however, and the potential for arsenic-related sticker shock skyrockets to $4.4 million, or more than $4,000 per household.
    Obviously, smaller towns will need a significant government subsidy if they are to comply with the new arsenic standard by the 2006 deadline. Where that money will come from still is uncertain.
    "There is a move afoot to petition Congress for money to those states impacted the most," Scanlan said. "They are talking about a special appropriation to help water systems in this area. That hasn't happened in any budget yet."
    And it may not happen for a while, given the continued controversy surrounding the decision last month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to toughen the arsenic standard.
    After years of debate, delay and litigation, the EPA decreed ON on Jan. 1 that drinking water cannot have an arsenic concentration greater than 10 parts per billion (ppb). The previous standard, established in 1942, was 50 ppb.
    According to EPA and U.S. Geological Society data compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council, at least 52,000 Utahns drink water with arsenic levels between 8 ppb and 25 ppb. About 211,000 Utahns drink water with an arsenic concentration above 3 ppb, which the Washington, D.C.-based environmental group believes should be the standard.
    A naturally occurring element, arsenic leaches into groundwater from some volcanic deposits and mining operations. The geology of the West makes this area particularly vulnerable to arsenic contamination.
    In large doses, the compound can cause instant death. It also is known to cause cancer and harm neurological, immune, endocrine and cardiovascular systems.
    Studies of large populations in Taiwan and Chile showed exposure to elevated levels of arsenic in the drinking water was associated with high incidences of cancer of the skin, bladder, kidney, liver and lungs.
    But its health effects in smaller doses are less known.
    The only arsenic study in the United States was conducted in Millard County, Utah. That study showed an association between arsenic, which ranged from 12 ppb to 120 ppb in the drinking water, and high rates of some diseases.
    The study found male death rates from "hypertensive heart disease" were 220 percent higher than expected for Millard County residents. The rate of prostate cancer was 45 percent higher than expected.
    In Fallon, Nev., where the childhood leukemia rate is 40 times the national average, health officials are investigating the possible role of arsenic. For years, Fallon has refused to treat its water, which has an arsenic concentration above 100 ppb.
    Still, Scanlan said ongoing studies of the health effects of low-level arsenic concentrations should have been completed before EPA lowered the health standard.
    Environmentalists are pleased EPA finally toughened the arsenic rule, but say it still is inadequate.
    "It's a step forward over the current standard but it's not where we want to be," said Paul Schwartz of Clean Water Action in Washington, D.C.
    Environmentalists say they will not challenge the new rule, which was established under the Clinton administration and is being reviewed by the Bush White House.
    Schwartz said he doubts Bush will tamper with the new rule but fears Congress, under pressure from states and utility companies complaining about the costs, may try to reverse it.