SENATE votes for new arsenic standards for drinking water, Republican says acceptable to White House

Thursday, August 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to require new arsenic standards for drinking water, approving compromise language that would add pressure on President Bush to lower acceptable levels of the carcinogen.

By a 97-1 vote, lawmakers voted to require the Environmental Protection Agency to immediately put new arsenic regulations into effect. The language said the EPA should protect ``those at greater risk'' such as the young, old and ill of diseases arsenic has been linked to.

But the Senate provision was vaguer than a House measure approved last week, which would require the administration to maintain the maximum 10 parts per billion level that former President Clinton set before leaving office in January. In March, Bush put the new standards on hold, subject to further study, in effect leaving the 59-year-old 50 parts per billion requirement in place.

The proposal by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., won widespread support after Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said he would introduce legislation requiring federal assistance to communities that have to upgrade their water systems to lower their arsenic levels. Many communities in the West have higher amounts of arsenic in their water.

Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., said the Bush administration considers Boxer's proposal ``an appropriate way to deal with arsenic in drinking water.''

Though the administration opposed the House provision, Bond said the Senate language is ``a happy resolution to the situation.''

The Senate provision would also require the government to mail people information about whether they have high levels of arsenic in their water. That requirement was another part of Clinton's order on the issue that Bush suspended.

``He suspended everything good when it came to these rules,'' Boxer said.

Westerners complained that conforming with lower arsenic standards was a potentially costly proposition, especially for small towns in areas where the substance occurs naturally. Some estimates are that it could cost communities and private industry $200 million annually to meet Clinton's proposed standards.

``I'll tell you something we don't have naturally, and that's enough money,'' said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.

Last Friday, the House voted 218-189 to bar the EPA from weakening the Clinton standards. That was the latest in a series of environmental votes in which the chamber has clashed with Bush. The House has voted against Bush administration plans to drill for oil and gas off the Florida coast, in land designated as national monuments and elsewhere.

Clinton's new arsenic standards were to go into effect in March, with full compliance required by 2006. In March, Bush suspended those requirements as part of his review of regulations Clinton issued shortly before leaving office. Bush also delayed the effective date of the rule until next February, while leaving a 2006 target date for full compliance.

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman has not ruled out a standard that would be even lower than 10 parts per billion, though her office has elicited public comment on 20 ppb.

In a 1999 report, the National Academy of Sciences called for stricter standards, saying arsenic was a potent human carcinogen linked to lung, bladder and skin cancer.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, cast the lone vote against the proposal. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., did not vote.

The provision was part of a $113.4 billion measure financing housing, veterans and environmental programs for next year.