Court ruling sets stage for California Department of Public Health to get it right on drinking water standard for cancer-causing chemical

Last month, the Superior Court of Alameda set a deadline for the California Department of Public Health to issue a final drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium, the carcinogen made famous by the film Erin Brockovich. The court imposed two deadlines for the Department to finalize the standard: April 15, 2014 if the Department makes no changes to the standard it proposed in last August; or, June 15, 2014, if the Department makes changes to the proposed standard, in order to allow for public comments. This is an important step forward for a standard that has been delayed by a decade.

Now is the time to get the standard right and protect public health.

In setting a deadline for action, the court noted that the “Department has not shown that it has acted with the extraordinary diligence required by the statute and the circumstances.”

Unfortunately, the standard proposed by the Department reflects this same failure to prioritize a public health issue of vital importance to Californians. Health-protective drinking water standards are essential for ensuring the continued availability of clean and safe drinking water for all Californians, and deserve to be a state priority. Strong health-based standards should be part of the state’s focus on drinking water issues at a time when California could be facing water shortfalls in the near future. In addition to consolidating water quality programs in one agency to streamline and maximize resources and looking at ways to address nitrate pollution in the Central Valley, the state agencies and the Governor’s office should also be ensuring that drinking water contaminated with hexavalent chromium is properly addressed.

The Department’s proposed standard for hexavalent chromium in drinking water does not ensure safe drinking water. The Department has proposed a standard of 10 parts per billion (ppb), which would not affect the vast majority of contaminated water sources:  over 87 percent of water sources contaminated with hexavalent chromium would not be covered by the proposed standard. The proposed standard would allow 500 times more hexavalent chromium in drinking water than the public health goal for cancer  that the state itself established (0.02 ppb). The level of risk associated with the proposed standard is well outside the range of risk which regulatory health agencies usually consider acceptable and within which they usually operate. In addition, the proposed standard is 5 times greater than the level at which non-cancer health effects such as liver damage can occur; the state identified 2 ppb as the appropriate goal to protect against non-cancer health effects.

The weak proposed standard is a reflection of the Department’s failure to adequately account for the benefits of avoiding the non-cancer health effect and of overestimating the costs of treating drinking water contaminated with hexavalent chromium. The Department analyzed the costs of treating drinking water and the benefits of the treatment in making its decision. Unfortunately, in doing so, it did not assess the benefits of avoiding liver damage and other non-cancer health risks of exposure to hexavalent chromium in drinking water. Simultaneously, the Department acknowledged that many systems would use techniques other than setting up new treatment systems to meet the standard and that these techniques would be less expensive. However, the Department did not factor in these saving into its evaluation of the costs of treatment. The Department should correct these oversights. We believe an analysis that addresses these issues will support a more health protective standard.

The Department should pursue its mission to protect public health and set the strongest possible standard to reduce the health risk faced by millions of Californians from hexavalent chromium in their drinking water.