Court upholds EPA's stricter water standard - Agency was sued after ordering public water systems to cut arsenic levels
WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court yesterday upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's requirement that water agencies significantly reduce arsenic levels in drinking water to 10 parts per billion.
The tougher standard, issued by the EPA in October 2001 to go into effect in 2006, was challenged in a lawsuit by the state of Nebraska and the city of Alliance, Neb. They argued that regulating drinking water was a state responsibility and that the EPA had gone beyond its authority under the Interstate Commerce Act and the U.S. Constitution.
But the three-judge panel unanimously rejected the claim.
The suit's argument "falls well short" of having any merit, wrote Judge A. Raymond Randolph. He wrote that the Safe Drinking Water Act, under which the arsenic regulation was pursued, does not compel states to pass legislation or to enforce the federal requirement.
"Rather, it regulates the states only in their capacity as public water system owners," he wrote.
The lawsuit had been opposed by the Justice Department and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private environmental group.
"This is a big victory for public health and for all Americans who want safe drinking water," said Erik Olson, a council attorney.
The new EPA standard reduces the maximum amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water from 50 parts per billion, a level that had been in effect since 1942, to 10 parts per billion.
One part per billion is the equivalent of one drop of water in a 10,000 gallon swimming pool.
The new requirement initially was adopted by the Clinton administration, three days before the president left office.
The Bush administration put the regulation on hold, prompting an outcry from environmentalists and health experts.
After a lengthy review, including a National Academy of Sciences report saying the risks of cancer from arsenic-tainted drinking water had been underestimated, the EPA decided to lower the standard. Congress also amended the Clean Water Act and ordered the standard lowered.
Arsenic occurs in nature and also as an industrial byproduct. It is found in high concentrations in Western mining states.
Some smaller cities and water agencies have complained that meeting the new standard would be difficult because of the cost. It was estimated by Nebraska officials that the new rule would cost the state $65 million to $110 million for compliance.
The EPA is providing $20 million for research into the most cost-effective technologies to meet the new requirement.
The EPA has estimated that one in 20 water systems, or about 4,100 nationwide, will have to additionally treat their water to meet the new standard. About 97 percent of these are small systems serving communities of fewer than 10,000 people.
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