Water, water, everywhere

By the

April 19, 2001

Late last month, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to reverse a drinking-water regulation imposed in the last days of the Clinton administration that would have reduced by 80 percent the permissible levels of arsenic, a known carcinogen, in drinking water supplies. The Bush administration rejected the new standards in favor of retaining archaic arsenic regulations that were established in 1942. President George Bush’s rejection of the new drinking water standards is only the latest development in the Bush administration’s assault on the environment. With Earth Day approaching, Bush’s drastic deviations from his predecessor’s environmental policy invite us to closely examine the Bush administration’s motives. It appears that Bush has made a policy of bowing to special-interest groups rather than to scientific evidence in formulating his environmental policy. Especially in the case of drinking-water regulations, Bush has amply demonstrated that he has no reservations with sacrificing the health of those that he has sworn to serve and protect in order to benefit those that have sworn to pay and elect him.

In the scarcely four months that he has been in office, the president has reversed a campaign promise to limit carbon dioxide emissions, which are thought by many scientists to be a leading cause of global warming. He has rejected the Kyoto international climate treaty and the reductions in pollution that it would have mandated. He has suspended a regulation passed under Clinton that would have caused stricter regulation of hardrock mining, and he has rejected an international treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Now Bush has trampled upon a drinking water regulation that would have affected at least 11 million Americans, mostly in the West, who currently are forced to rely on drinking water that contains more arsenic than the 10 parts-per-billion standard that the National Academy of Sciences, as well as the World Health Organization and the European Union, have established as safe.

The Bush administration has questioned whether there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the 50 parts-per-billion standard actually poses a risk of cancer over a lifetime of drinking, despite the fact that a 1999 study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the current standard could “easily” result in a 1-in-100 risk of cancer.
Is Bush pro-arsenic, then? Does he, like certain disingenuous municipal employees in cities afflicted by high arsenic levels in their drinking water, actually believe that some arsenic can’t do any harm and might even enhance the flavor of drinking water? Maybe Bush just had a little too much arsenic in his own drinking water as a kid.

Clearly, what influenced Bush’s decision was not his own considerations of what is best for public health, but his indebtedness to the mining industry, a huge contributor to Bush and the Republicans. Arsenic is a common mining byproduct, and stricter arsenic standards would have translated into stricter standards for both the mining industry and the wood-products industry, which uses arsenic to pressure treat lumber. The mining industry had sued to obstruct the new regulation.

Bush’s decision was not supported by either science, nor was it reflective of a “compassionate” consideration of what is best for the safety of Americans living in areas afflicted by high arsenic levels in drinking water. It is unacceptable that Bush is allowing special interest groups, rather than the needs of the American people, to control U.S. environmental policy. Come June, the deadline for when the EPA must come up with its own standard, we urge the Bush administration to look to science and not to special interests in making a final decision.

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