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Congress makes the right call on arsenic standards



Published: Sat, August 4, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Now that both the Senate and House have backed stricter standards for arsenic in drinking water, neither President Bush nor Christie Todd Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, should hold fast to their previous opposition to the regulations first set in the Clinton administration. Opposing Clinton-era standards solely because they are associated with the former president is not good public policy.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 97-1 to require the EPA to put new arsenic regulations into effect immediately. Bush had wanted to wait until 2006. The Friday before, the House voted 218-189 to bar the EPA from weakening the Clinton standards.

It was nearly 60 years ago that Congress established 50 parts per billion as the standard -- long before tests made possible by contemporary science and technology could more extensively evaluate the dangers. Still, eliminating the antiquated standards for arsenic in the water people drink should have been an easy call. First of all, it doesn't take an advanced degree in chemistry to know that arsenic is poisonous nor to recognize that it is carcinogenic.

Second, the World Health Organization, on the basis of extensive research, had already established an arsenic standard of 5 parts per billion.

Five-year-old mandate: And third, it was a Republican Congress that originally mandated the setting of a new arsenic standard in the Safe Drinking Water Act amendments of 1996.

So why did Whitman decide to scrap the safer standards last March? Supposedly, the existing science wasn't good enough for her. And besides, an EPA cost-benefit study concluded that the potential of saving a few more lives wasn't worth the expense for some western communities that have higher amounts of arsenic occurring naturally in their drinking water.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., answered that objection, saying that he would introduce legislation requiring federal assistance to communities that have to upgrade their water systems to lower their arsenic levels. That makes sense.

The sooner the new standards are put in place, the better. The EPA's middle name is "Protection." Protecting Americans from the dangers of arsenic shouldn't have to wait on politics.




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