White House Proposal Would Reclassify Unsafe Water as "Protective of Health";

Dangerous Plan Could Affect More than 50 Million People in Towns Nationwide

WASHINGTON (April 1, 2006) -- With little notice, the Bush Administration is moving to allow three or more times the safe level of contaminants in small-town drinking water supplies than is allowed under current drinking water health standards, a proposal that could endanger more than 50 million rural residents, and eventually may threaten many millions more urban dwellers, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) warned today.

"This proposal could allow thousands of water utilities across the nation to provide drinking water containing dangerous levels of toxic chemicals," said Erik D. Olson, an NRDC senior attorney.

The proposal would allow tap water containing three or more times the contamination allowed under the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) health standards to be considered "protective of health" in communities with fewer than 10,000 people. More than 94 percent of the drinking water systems in the country could qualify for waivers of federal standards for toxic contaminants under the new policy.

The "water affordability" proposal would allow higher contamination levels if cleaning up the toxic contamination of tap water were deemed "unaffordable" -- which the proposal defines as a cost to utilities of as little as $8.33 per household per month (0.25 percent of Median Household Income).

The proposal could rekindle the debate over whether some water systems must remove cancer-causing arsenic. In March 2001, the Bush administration suspended a new, stricter EPA arsenic-in-tap-water standard issued by the Clinton administration, triggering a public outcry and congressional votes to force EPA to reinstate the stricter standard. The agency eventually did reinstate the Clinton standard in late 2001, but its new proposal is expected to trigger demands from some water systems to loosen the requirements, which could allow them to serve water containing three times or more arsenic than allowed by the 2001 standard. The water affordability proposal must be inserted into EPA's rules before it takes effect, but could undercut clean drinking water enforcement until then.

"This sure looks like an effort to quietly end-run Congress and the public's demand for safe drinking water," Olson said.

According to administration sources, this proposal was forced upon the EPA by senior White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officials, including recently departed OMB regulatory chief John Graham. Both Graham and OMB have a long history of fighting EPA-adopted public health protections.

Quietly issued under the benign heading "drinking water affordability methodology" by the EPA earlier this month, the draft rule also poses a threat to urban residents by making it harder to enforce safety standards for larger systems as well, because some city officials can be expected to argue that what's deemed safe for residents of small towns should also be considered safe for cities.

The proposal also is expected to be used to block cleanup efforts at Superfund sites and other contaminated hazardous waste sites across the country, where cleanup standards are traditionally based on drinking water standards.

In making the recommendation, the administration rejected the advice of its own expert panel. In 2003, an EPA-convened panel of state, tribal, and local officials; water utilities; health experts; economists; and consumer and environmental groups recommended that waivers of federal tap water standards should be allowed in very limited circumstances, and only when the cost of complying with the standard exceeds one percent of Median Household Income (about $33 per month). The panel also recommended that EPA and states help small water systems "restructure" (for example, gain economies of scale by consolidating or pooling resources) and use current or new funding programs to assist needy small systems, rather than weakening health protections. All members of the expert panel, including a water industry trade association expert representing small and large water systems, agreed to the recommendations, with the exception of a single member representing the national rural water association.

"Instead of serving small town America toxic tap water, the administration should follow the advice of its own expert advisors, by offering technical fixes and funding to help clean up contaminated water supplies," said Olson.

"This proposal defies logic, science, and common sense," said Dr. Jennifer Sass, an NRDC senior scientist.. "It's crazy to allow millions of Americans to needlessly drink high levels of toxic chemicals from their taps."

The EPA's proposal was published in the March 2 Federal Register. The public has until May 1 to comment.