Something in the Water Part II

This is the second of two articles addressing arsenic in drinking water. Part I, which appeared in our June 2001 issue (see under Archives), concentrated on scientific history and research. Part II looks at debates concerning the regulations and politics.

Three days before it was to take effect, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the withdrawal of the January 2001, 10 parts per billion (micrograms/liter (ppb)) rule for arsenic in drinking water. On April 18, EPA suspended any decision on a new maximum contaminant level (MCL) until February, 2002.

The current U.S. MCL of 50 ppb matches countries such as Bangladesh, China, India, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, while a 10 ppb standard would bring the United States in line with Japan, the European Union and the World Health Organization. The agency proposed a five ppb MCL in June 2000 and then increased it to 10 ppb in January 2001. At EPA's request, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recently completed a review of three to 20 ppb, and the National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) analyzed the cost.

"Scientists disagree on exactly what the risk is at low levels, and economists disagree on the cost," said Dr. Richard Wilson, research professor of physics at Harvard.

Some think nothing has been lost with the delay. The ultimate date for compliance is 2006; the Clinton Administration's January 2001 rule would have set a 2004 deadline for compliance, but allowed states the option of a two-year extension if problems arose implementing the standard. Because EPA pledges to implement the final rule in the same year, the additional delay does not seem to affect anything. Others think there may not be enough time to comply with and enforce the standard by the 2006 deadline if the MCL is not set until 2002.

"There is a lot of new information on everything from three to 20 ppb. The new Administrator is looking at the information since March of 1999, focusing primarily on data that has come along since the time of the first study, including some studies that have been published since January 2001," Robin Woods, spokeswoman for EPA said.

Below the Surface

In 1975, EPA adopted the 1942 U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) arsenic standard as a National Interim Primary Drinking Water Regulation, promising to revise it based on the development of science. In 1962, PHS recommended the arsenic MCL be lowered to 10 ppb, and in 1999, NAS recommended EPA lower the standard. After decades of regulatory development, public comment, millions of dollars in research and three missed statutory deadlines, EPA issued the 10 ppb MCL. It was published in the January 22, 2001, Federal Register. Within the next several weeks, two industry groups, a water utility group and a Nebraska Attorney general filed court challenges to the final rule. The wood product industry's trade association, the American Wood Preservers Institute, supported the mining industry in a lawsuit because arsenic is used to pressure-treat lumber.

Legally, the SDWA requires EPA review and revise, as appropriate, each drinking water regulation at least every six years. Any revision must maintain or provide greater protection for public health. If EPA sets the MCL at a stringent level, the agency is unlikely to have flexibility to revise it if research later shows it is overly stringent. A concern is that many households could be required to incur significant costs without gaining meaningful risk-reduction benefits. Possible risks were discussed in Part I ("Something in the Water," June '01).

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) believes EPA should have already lowered the arsenic level in drinking water to three ppb. On June 28, NRDC filed a lawsuit against EPA over the suspension of a tighter standard. NRDC contends the administration violated procedural and substantive requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and Administrative Procedure Act.

The most recent September 2001 report from NAS concluded the risk to public health was much higher than thought and prompted EPA to seek a standard more strict than 50 ppb.

A lower MCL would make an impact on about 10 percent of the nation's community drinking water providers, and it could be the most expensive drinking water regulation ever. There could be dramatic costs for public water consumers and new requirements of the business community. EPA fears the program could be so expensive that it might force communities to rely on wells with even higher arsenic concentrations. NDWAC has been examining the disparate cost estimates of EPA and the American Water Works Association (AWWA) - EPA estimated approximately $180 million and $206 million per year, while AWWA placed costs ranging from $230 million to nearly $1 billion per year.

The debate is largely about cost -- especially to small communities. EPA estimates that roughly five percent, or 3,000 community water systems, serving a total of 11 million people would have to take corrective action to lower the current levels of arsenic in their drinking water to 10 ppb. Of all of the affected systems, 97 percent are small systems that serve fewer than 10,000 people each, which is why costs must be balanced with accurate information - these community systems have limited financial ability to pay for technology needed to comply with stricter standards.

"The people who are impacted by the rule are the small towns. Rates for water could triple. You have to look at the impact on families, especially low-income families," said Mike Keegan, Policy Analyst, National Rural Water Association.

The rule could be the most expensive drinking water regulation ever.

Democrats have offered bills to implement the tighter standard, and there have also been bills to provide federal funding to help public water systems meet the standard. AWWA has said it will seek financial relief for those affected. To ease the burden, AWWA will initiate efforts in Congress to procure adequate federal assistance for those communities hit hardest by the requirements of a new rule. Currently, American water utilities already spend approximately $22 billion annually to make tap water fit to drink.

"For the town that gets the grant to comply, it's excellent -- for the town that doesn't, the problem remains. If you are going to give grants away, then you don't need a rule. Any town that wants to reduce their arsenic level today can do it as low as they want," said Keegan.

On August 22, the panel that reviewed the cost factors concluded EPA put forth a "credible estimate." Key elements factored into the national cost included the number of water systems affected and volume of water requiring arsenic reduction, as well as the disposal of waste and residuals from arsenic treatment.

With a Doubt - Get it Out

A tighter drinking water standard could result in greater liability for companies under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, also known as Superfund), the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA), because treatment to remove arsenic would create hazardous waste. There is also rising concern about chromated copper arsenate (CCA)-treated wood, which began it's heavy use in the '70s and is beginning to enter the waste stream. The disposal of the wood is an uncertain waste management issue, and people are beginning to wonder about the state of the soil at sites where there is CCA-treated wood as well.

Techniques to treat water at larger facilities include coagulation, filtration and lime softening. Smaller systems use anion exchange, activated alumina filters, reverse osmosis and nanofiltration.

NRDC claims it is worth investigating whether reworking contaminated wells and/or reducing pumping rates may reduce arsenic levels in some systems. Cleaning up old dumpsites under Superfund and related programs may reduce arsenic contamination in systems affected by arsenic from industrial sites. Additionally, arsenical pesticide hot spots and certain mine waste sites should be addressed in order to reduce water contamination, according to NRDC.

Liquid End

The 2001 National Consumer Water Quality Survey (a biennial report sponsored by the Water Quality Association), found 86 percent of Americans have concerns about their home water supply, and nearly half believe federal laws governing the quality of drinking water are not strict enough. One in three people believes water is not as safe as it should be.

Some say there is a sound scientific basis for concluding that any risk associated with the current 50 ppb MCL is acceptable, especially when this risk is combined with the cost impacts of lowering the standard. Perhaps the risks are overestimated. Affordability by the potentially affected population is important, and technical and economical aspects do require further evaluation.

"Making a one-standard fits all levels is arbitrary. You are always going to have problems. It will always be a bad rule in some communities. It won't work," said Mr. Keegan.

The debate is largely about cost -- especially to small communities.

Others believe the solid science only shows the MCL should be lowered.

"There is probably more information to support the arsenic rule than most rules that have been adopted in the last 30 years by the EPA. Of all the rules I have seen EPA adopt over the years, this one (10 ppb) is the most justified on a scientific basis," said Dr. Wilson.

Drinking water standards are typically used as benchmarks in other federal and state programs to set waste, groundwater and environmental remediation standards. A new arsenic rule could mean consequences for standards governing more than just drinking water.


Natural Resources Defense Council's February 2000 Report "Arsenic and Old Laws" -

NRC/NAS Report on Arsenic in Drinking Water --

The Arsenic Website Project -

American Water Works Association Research Foundation, Projects Related to Arsenic Issues --

Tap Water Quality Concern

The best place to get answers about the quality of your tap water is from the local utilities. Every July, utilities make information available to consumers free of charge. They distribute water quality reports, known as Consumer Confidence Reports, which let consumers know where their water comes from, who is responsible for degrading its quality and what treatments the utility employs to make it fit to drink.

This article originally appeared in the October 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 10, p. 30.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.