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EPA Study Undercuts Bush Decision To Revoke Tougher Arsenic Standard

By Elizabeth Shogren

A new study by an Environmental Protection Agency advisory panel appears to undermine one of the Bush administration’s primary reasons for revoking a tough new standard for arsenic levels in drinking water.

The panel, in a report released Thursday, concluded that the Clinton administration did a “credible job” of computing the costs to water systems when it called for an 80 percent reduction in arsenic in drinking water.

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman prevented the new standard from taking effect, citing concerns that the previous administration did not adequately consider the costs and benefits of the new standard or the latest scientific evidence on the impact of small amounts of arsenic, a carcinogen, on human health.

“When the federal government imposes costs on communities, especially small communities, we should be sure the facts support imposing the federal standard,” Whitman said in March when she rescinded the standard and launched a review.

That decision has cost the administration dearly, raising doubts about the new president’s commitment to public health.

The panel’s findings could increase political discomfort for the Bush administration as it continues to justify revoking the Clinton administration standard and prepares to announce its own proposal this fall on what the new standard should be.

The panel did, however, offer suggestions to the EPA on how to better estimate costs as the agency decides where to set the standard. It also strongly urged the EPA to alter the way it considers affordability for small water systems and recommended that a fund be developed to help them meet the new standard.

“It’s obvious that this rule and other rules are not affordable to small systems,” said David Spath, a member of the panel and chief administrator of public water systems for California.

EPA officials said the report confirmed the wisdom of Whitman’s review and will strengthen confidence in the final standard.

“Her decision was made in response to a significant number of stakeholders raising questions and concerns and exhibiting a lack of confidence in EPA’s analysis,” said Ephraim King, an agency official working on the standard. “One of EPA’s jobs is to ensure the public has confidence in the analysis we do.”

The Clinton administration standard had been challenged in court by several Western states, a group of Western utilities and the mining industry.

King said the EPA will consider this report and two others ordered by Whitman as it develops a new standard for arsenic in drinking water.