Multinational Monitor

MAY 2001
VOL 22 No. 5


Rollback: The Corporate Regulatory Feeding Frenzy
Foreward by
Monitor Staff

Bush's Corporate Cabinet
by Charlie Cray

The Repetitive Motion Un-Rule
by Deborah Weinstock

Arsenic and Old Regs
by Lynn Thorp

The Roadless Tramelled
by Ned Daly

Bankrupt Policies
by Jake Lewis

Bush’s Hot Air
by Phil Radford

Mining Their Own Business
by Charlie Cray

Defending Contractor Irresponsibility
by Robert Weissman

A Regulatory Accident in the Making
by Charlie Cray

Cheney and Halliburton: Go Where the Oil Is
by Kenny Bruno
and Jim Valette


The Politics and Law of Worker Rights
an interview with
William Gould


Behind the Lines

Challenging the Oiligarchy

The Front
Medical Privacy, For Now

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Arsenic and Old Regs

by Lynn Thorp

Let them drink arsenic!

That, complain environmentalists, was the message sent by the Bush administration in March, when U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christine Whitman announced withdrawal of a new regulation for arsenic in drinking water, pending a review of scientific and cost issues.

According to EPA, studies link arsenic in drinking water to cancers of the bladder, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver and prostrate. Arsenic consumption also has cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological, neurological and endocrine effects. As many as 60 million people in the United States are drinking dangerous levels of arsenic in their tap water, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which released “Arsenic and Old Laws” in March 2000.

While much arsenic comes from geologic formations found in the earth’s crust, both historical and current uses of arsenic-containing pesticides and waste from the mining industry contribute to drinking water contamination. Of increasing concern is chromated copper arsenate (CCA), the predominant chemical used in pressure-treated wood for outdoor playgrounds, decks and picnic tables.

At issue in the current arsenic controversy is how strict an EPA revision of a 50-year-old standard will be. There is wide agreement that the 50 parts per billion (ppb) regulation, set in 1942, is woefully out of date. A 1999 National Academy of Sciences report urged EPA to “set a new standard to ensure that amounts of arsenic in U.S. drinking water supplies are set to levels that minimize potential health risks.”

After several missed statutory deadlines and years of debate, the EPA issued a proposed regulation of 5 ppb in January 2000. Under intense pressure from some water utilities and trade associations, as well as the mining and wood preservative industries, the Clinton administration EPA set the final regulation at 10 ppb in January 2001.

In March, calling the prior administration's work on the issue “sound-bite science,” Administrator Whitman challenged the new regulation, asking NAS to conduct another scientific review and extending the timetable for a final ruling until February 2002.

According to public health, environmental and consumer organizations who advocate a regulation of 3 ppb or less, the Clinton administration’s regulation already represents a compromise; they claim that the assumptions underlying the new rule — far from being too strict or onerous –– underestimate the benefits in preventing serious health effects while overestimating the costs to water utilities and drinking water customers.

“Current and proposed federal assistance, along with emerging new treatment technologies, will make it possible for all public water systems to implement this regulation and protect their customers,” says Diana Neidle of the Consumer Federation of America.

While water utilities’ opinions run the gamut from support to ambivalence to opposition to the Clinton proposal, some industries have been fierce in their opposition.

Leading the charge are the mining and wood preservative industries, which fear current and future liability at toxic waste sites –– where clean-up standards are determined by federal drinking water regulations.

By early March, the National Mining Association and the American Wood Preservers Institute had both filed suit to block the Clinton administration’s standard. The two were joined by the Western Coalition of Arid States (WESTCAS), representing water and wastewater agencies in seven western states.

“When WESTCAS members considered the high cost to water customers, EPA’s improper estimates of the cost-to-benefit ratios and the uncertainty of actual benefits, we felt compelled to challenge the rule,” Doug Karafa, WESTCAS president, explains.

Industry spokespeople point out that the rule hasn’t been pulled, only delayed until a complete scientific review can occur.

“There isn’t enough evidence yet that clearly states what the standards should be,” Karen Batra of the National Mining Association says. Before the Bush administration withdrew the arsenic rule for a review process, NMA joined the other trade associations in petitioning a federal court to overturn the standards, stressing that EPA “seriously underestimated the costs of compliance.”

“The EPA is going to find that the overwhelming scientific evidence about arsenic’s health effects more than justifies a strict regulation. Special interests should not be exercising such influence over the quality of the water coming out of our taps,” says Paul Schwartz, national policy coordinator for Clean Water Action.

Lynn Thorp is national campaigns coordinator for Clean Water Action.

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