NRDC Denounces Bush Administration Suspension of Arsenic-in-Drinking-Water Protections

Group Will Sue Government to Reinstate Standard

WASHINGTON (May 22, 2001) - NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council) announced it will sue to challenge the Bush administration's suspension today of the new arsenic-in-tap-water standard and right-to-know requirements. NRDC said that the Bush administration's suspension of the arsenic protections is scientifically unwarranted, illegal, and flies in the face of what the administration concedes is "overwhelming" public opposition expressed by thousands of comments.

"The Bush administration's decision today to suspend the new arsenic-in-tap-water rule in the face of what it calls 'overwhelming' public opposition is stunningly arrogant and wrongheaded," said Erik D. Olson, an NRDC senior attorney. Olson noted that the Bush administration has acknowledged that in the two weeks it provided for public input, between April 23 and May 7, it received more than 12,000 comments, and "the overwhelming number" opposed the suspension of the arsenic rule due to health concerns.

"Unfortunately, President Bush apparently won't listen to reason, scientific evidence, or the will of the American public, so NRDC is left no choice but to sue," Olson said.

The administration's announcement today also includes some important new revelations, Olson said. Among them is the admission that the Bush administration has invited industry to argue for a new arsenic standard higher than 20 ppb, the level EPA Administrator Whitman had previously said was the highest number that would be considered. In addition, the announcement states that EPA is reconsidering its previous scientific finding that arsenic likely causes cancer at any dose, which would directly reverse previous EPA scientific reviews and the advice of a definitive 1999 National Academy of Sciences review of arsenic in drinking water.

In addition, NRDC charges that the Bush administration's announcement relies on a flawed argument that although it has suspended the rule, it has not violated the law's requirement that the updated standard must be in place by June 22, 2001. The administration argues that the suspended January 22, 2001, arsenic rule will fulfill the law's requirement, even though today's action effectively takes the rule off the books.

The administration's suspension of the arsenic rule is illegal because 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act required EPA to put a final rule in place by January 1 of this year, a date that was pushed back to June 22 by an appropriations rider.

Although the administration says it will issue the new standard next year and ensure it is enforced in 2006, the tortured history of arsenic regulation suggests this is extremely unlikely. After 25 years of delays, at least three missed statutory deadlines, and broken promises to update an outdated standard, the government is unlikely to honor its promises of expeditious action. Moreover, EPA made a legal finding in its January 2001 rule that it would take water systems five years to comply with a new arsenic standard. The agency likely will face stiff legal challenges from industry if it tries to cut this five-year compliance period when -- and if -- it issues a new arsenic standard in 2002 and seeks to require compliance by 2006.

The arsenic standard the EPA issued in January would have lowered the maximum allowable level of arsenic in tap water from the current standard of 50 parts per billion, which was established in 1942, to 10 parts per billion. It is the same standard adopted by the World Health Organization and the European Union a few years ago.

In addition, the Bush EPA now has indicated it also will suspend the January 2001 arsenic rule's right-to-know measures. That rule requires that starting in 2002, water utilities must inform their consumers about arsenic levels in their water, including specific arsenic-related information if the water contains from 5 parts to 10 parts per billion of arsenic. The rule mandates water suppliers to provide a more detailed health warning to consumers next year if their water contains more than 10 parts per billion. Such right-to-know requirements are common sense, cost virtually nothing, and are being killed for political reasons.

NRDC and other public health advocates believe that EPA should have lowered the standard for arsenic in drinking water to 3 parts per billion. The agency proposed a 5 parts per billion standard in June 2000, but increased it to 10 parts per billion last January in response to industry pressure.

"The Bush administration would like Americans to believe that the Clinton administration hastily and arbitrarily established this standard at the last minute," Olson noted. "In fact, EPA took more than two decades to develop this rule, and Congress has repeatedly ordered EPA to update the standard over the last 25 years. In 1996, Congress ordered EPA action on arsenic for the third time, making January 2001 the deadline for a new standard. EPA finally proposed the new standard last June because NRDC sued. Now it looks like we'll have to sue again."