Senators add sense to water issue
August 2, 2001
Arsenic vote aids Nebraska
By Jake Thompson, Omaha World-Herald
The U.S. Senate on Wednesday (August 1, 2001) gave the Bush administration more leniency in imposing new arsenic regulations for the nation's drinking water systems. That wiggle room should help people in Nebraska's rural communities, Senator Chuck Hagel.
Last Friday (July 27), over objections from Nebraska's three congressmen, the House voted to bar President Bush from delaying stricter standards for arsenic. The House urged Bush to implement a rule issued by President Clinton just before he left office.
Clinton's rule lowered the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. When Bush took office, he and Environmental Protection Agency Director Christie Whitman began a process to reconsider the rule.
While the Senate's resolution, approved 97-1, prodded Bush to move ahead with the arsenic rule, it made modifications.
It didn't specify the maximum amount of contaminant allowed, but left that number to be determined by scientific research. It also calls for the rule to consider cost-benefit analyses on the impact on communities.
"The EPA has to use cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment where scientists will make decisions about what that standard needs to be, rather than bureaucrats," Senator Ben Nelson said.
In addition, the Senate amendment calls on the Bush administration to complete the process relatively soon, which Nelson said will give communities a longer time to try to meet the standard before a deadline kicks in several years from now.
Some cities and states, among them Nebraska, have sued to stop the Clinton rule.
The EPA had proposed setting the acceptable arsenic level for tap water at 5 parts per billion last year in response to a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council, then settled at 10 parts per billion. In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences found that arsenic in drinking water causes bladder, lung and skin cancer, and may cause liver and kidney cancer.
The five-member Nebraska delegation has worked together for a number of years on the arsenic issue. Hagel recalled that he and former Senator Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat, held town meetings across Nebraska four years ago to determine the potential costs of complying with "some of this nutty stuff Clinton was talking about."
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has determined that 68 public water systems have arsenic concentrations above the 10 parts per billion level. The total cost for scrubbing arsenic from all 68 water systems could exceed $120 million, according to the state health department.
Senators add sense to water issue
By Harold W. Andersen, Omaha World-Herald, August 9, 2001
Let's hear it for those 97 U.S. Senators -- including Nebraska's Republican Chuck Hagel and Democrat Ben Nelson -- who injected some common sense into the debate over the allowable level of arsenic in the nation's drinking water systems.
A few days earlier, the House of Representatives had voted to bar President Bush from delaying the implementation of the stricter standards for arsenic content proposed in the waning days of the Clinton administration. (Nebraska Republican Representatives Doug Bereuter, Lee Terry and Tom Osborne were among those opposing tying the hands of the Bush administration on the issue.)
In contrast to the House vote, the Senate left the maximum percentage of arsenic content to be determined by scientific research and also called for consideration of cost-benefit analyses of the impact on communities that would be required to modify their water systems.
(In Nebraska, it has been estimated that modification necessary to meet the Clinton administration's proposed standards would cost 51 communities about $97 million. Included would be 20 communities with populations of 500 or less. Anselmo, population 177, for example, would have to spend an estimated $140,000.)
When the Bush administration took office, the Clinton administration proposal to reduce the allowable level from 50 parts to 10 parts per billion parts of water was suspended. Bush administration spokesmen stressed that delaying implementation of the proposed standards would not foreclose the possibility of approving stiffer standards after further scientific research.
But environmental activists argued against further research, charging or implying that the Bush administration is not really concerned about the safety of the nation's drinking water, a viewpoint now implicitly endorsed by a majority of the House of Representatives. What utter nonsense.
A recent World-Herald editorial pinpointed a basic weakness in the environmental extremists' argument for greatly reduced arsenic-level standards. The editorial pointed out that "the evidence of harmful effects at various levels depends on statistical probabilities rather than documented cases."
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