The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is promising to set new standards for arsenic in drinking water, but critics say scrapping former President Clinton's standard and asking for a new study means unjustified delay.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman said Wednesday she would establish a new standard within nine months, and she asked the National Academy of Sciences for an expedited study looking at the impact of a range of possible reductions.
The new standard could be tougher or less stringent than that set by Clinton shortly before he left office. The Bush administration already is under heavy fire from environmentalists and others for killing Clinton's standard, which would have limited arsenic to no more than 10 parts per billion in drinking water. Rescinding Clinton's standard restored a 50 ppb limit that has been in effect since 1942.
"This further delay is updating a nearly 60-year-old standard for arsenic in drinking water is unhealthy and unacceptable," said Grant Cope, a staff attorney for U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Whitman said she wanted a panel of scientists at the academy to examine a standard in the range of 3-20 ppb.
"The Bush administration is committed to protecting the environment and the health of all Americans," Whitman said in a written statement, promising a final regulation within nine months.
She said the decision to seek a report from the academy would "ensure that a standard will be put in place in a timely manner that provides clean, safe and affordable drinking water for the nation and is based on the best science."
Whitman argued that there was insufficient scientific evidence to justify the $200 million annual cost to municipalities, states and industry of meeting the new Clinton standards by 2006.
"I have said consistently that we will obtain the necessary scientific review ... and that we will establish that standard in a timely manner," she said Wednesday.
The administration plans to issue a new regulation that still meets the same time frame for compliance as the Clinton standard.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the EPA was bound by law to establish a new arsenic standard by June 22. Reid, the senior Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said he was "troubled by the notion that EPA would ignore" the law.
In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences said arsenic in drinking water can cause bladder, lung and skin cancer, and might cause liver and kidney cancer.
Arsenic is both a naturally occurring substance and industrial byproduct, entering the water supply from natural deposits and pollution. It is found at high concentrations in Western mining states and other areas heavy with coal-burning and copper smelting.
Physicians for Social Responsibility said the new study will only confirm what science has already shown - the lower the standard, the better.
"There is no safe level of arsenic," said Robert K. Musil, the group's director. "A mountain of existing research - including a new report on the dangers of low-levels of exposure published just last month - shows that the safest standard the United States can adopt is the lowest one: three parts per billion."
The Clinton EPA initially had proposed setting the standard at 5 ppb last year in response to a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"We're outraged that this is going to assure a year of delays for protection of public health for millions of Americans," said Erik D. Olson, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.