Congress preempts EPA in mandating new arsenic standards

Published October 1, 2001

A close vote in the U.S. House of Representatives and a near-unanimous vote in the U.S. Senate have forced the Bush administration’s hand on the issue of arsenic levels in drinking water.

The House voted 218-189 on July 27 to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from softening the drinking water standard set by the Clinton administration just hours before former President Clinton left office. On August 1, the Senate passed a similar measure by a 97-1 vote after Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) announced he would introduce legislation requiring federal financial assistance for communities required to upgrade their water systems to meet the new arsenic standard.

Arsenic, a naturally occurring substance, is the 20th most common element in the Earth’s crust and the 12th most common element in the human body. Most of the arsenic found in water supplies has entered the water through natural processes.

The current arsenic standard, which has been in place since 1942, allows 50 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water. However, after studies showed an increase in cancer risks to persons exposed to extremely high levels of arsenic for prolonged periods of time, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1999 recommended the standard be revised downward “as quickly as possible.”

Many scientists disagreed with the NAS recommendation, noting the NAS studies focused on unusually severe and prolonged arsenic exposure. The study did little to cast doubt on the much lower current arsenic levels mandated by current law, the scientists contended.

The NAS did not recommend a specific new arsenic level, but the Clinton administration announced an 80 percent reduction, from 50 ppb to 10 ppb, on the final night of Clinton’s Presidency.

The Clinton proposal was particularly troublesome to western states, which have higher levels of naturally occurring arsenic in their drinking water. Studies have indicated many rural towns would be bankrupted in attempting to meet the new federal standards. Tom Curtis of the American Water Works Association estimated it could cost as much as $4.5 billion to build sufficient arsenic treatment units throughout the country, and another $20 million per year to operate the systems.

In March, the Bush administration announced it would withdraw Clinton’s eleventh-hour rules. On April 18, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman elaborated on the decision, indicating she would seek a postponement of the new rule until next February, when the NAS will have had a chance to review new arsenic studies.

Whitman announced in July that EPA was seeking public comment on a 20 ppb standard. The announcement seemed to indicate a developing compromise accepting drastically lower arsenic levels, but not quite the 80 percent reduction proposed by the Clinton administration.

Congress emasculates EPA’s discretion

Preempting the imminent compromise, the House voted to approve a measure sponsored by Rep. David Bonior (D-Michigan) blocking the Bush administration from delaying or softening the Clinton standards. The vote broke down largely along party lines, although 19 Republicans switched sides to join the Democrats.

“This was a clear statement that people don’t want arsenic in their water,” stated Grant Cope, staff attorney for Ralph Nader’s U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Nebraska) countered that Democrats had resorted to “heated rhetoric, wild exaggerations, and sound-bite politics” to pass “a very arbitrary decision based on questionable studies.”

“While the Clinton standard was pushed out in a hurry, the Bush administration had begun a process to promote a standard based on sound science and to ensure that low-income communities are not overwhelmed by a needlessly expensive standard. It is a shame that members of the House of Representatives don’t think the agency should have just a few more months to complete that process,” said Angela Logomasini of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The Senate followed the House’s lead, buoyed by Domenici’s vow to help local communities meet the costs of the new standard. While the language of the Senate bill did not specifically mandate Clinton’s 10 ppb standard, it explicitly called for the Bush EPA to immediately impose new arsenic regulations. The proposal was widely viewed as an endorsement of the House vote.

In light of Domenici’s promise to federally fund the program, the proposed action is “an appropriate way to deal with arsenic in drinking water,” concluded Senator Christopher Bond (R-Missouri).