The Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush has struck down an 80 percent reduction in acceptable arsenic levels approved by former President Bill Clinton just before he left office. The decision was announ-ced recently by EPA administrator Christie Whitman.
The regulation would have reduced the acceptable amount of arsenic, a naturally occurring heavy metal known to cause cancer, in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. The plan drew fire from municipalities around the nation, which said there was no hard scientific basis for the change, and that it could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply.
"I'm disappointed," said Kenai resident David Thomas, a civil engineer who has studied chemical engineering. "I can understand the municipalities' concerns about treatment costs, but ... the arsenic standard we have is 50 years old, and we now have evidence from several other countries about the health effects of added cancers from arsenic exposure."
The United States' arsenic level standard was introduced in 1942. The European Union and World Health Organization have lowered their acceptable arsenic levels to 10 ppb in recent years, and the EPA had initially proposed a level of 3 ppb.
A 1999 study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the current standard could result in a one-in-100 risk of cancer.
"A lot of decisions are made on a one-in-1,000 or one-in-1 million risk," Thomas said. "A one-in-100 risk still is not up there with cigarette smoking. But for involuntary risks, it's far higher than typical criteria."
City of Kenai Public Works Director Keith Kornelis welcomed the decision.
"I think it's a very good decision. As I understand it, it wasn't a flat 'no,' but rather a chance to get more scientific evidence for making the requirement more stringent," he said.
There are a handful of treatment options to remove arsenic from water, including coagulation, softeners and microfiltration. The catch for municipalities here is that the water must be treated at its source, and in both Kenai and Soldotna, the wells are scattered about town, and each would require a treatment system at the well head.
Kornelis said the lower levels could've cost each of Kenai's 1,699 water customers hundreds of dollars a year.
MainStream, the newsletter of the American Water Works Association, reported that the EPA estimates annualized compliance costs to be as high as $327 per year per customer in municipalities that serve less than 10,000 residents.
According to the city of Kenai's drinking water quality report, there is no measurable arsenic or other contaminants in wells 1 or 2. There is 36 ppb of arsenic in well 3, which is lower than the current level of 50 ppb, but more than three times what would've been acceptable under the Clinton regulations.
According to Steve Bonebrake, Soldotna's public works director, well A, and the city's new test well, have arsenic in levels "a freckle" above the 10 ppb level, still about 1/5 the current accepted level of 50 ppb. Wells B, C and D are all below the 10 ppb level.
To put the minute numbers of parts per billion into perspective, Steve Shreiber, a program specialist with the National Rural Water Association, a water utility membership association in Duncan, Okla., said one part per billion is equivalent to a grain of salt in 1,000 1-liter bottles of soda, or a grain of salt in a 260 gallon tank of water.
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