WASHINGTON -- The House voted Friday to restore tougher arsenic limits that the Clinton administration established for drinking water but President Bush withdrew.
Nineteen Republicans joined Democrats in the 218-189 vote prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from using funds to weaken the arsenic standards adopted as President Clinton left office in January. The vote was the latest putting Congress at odds with the Bush administration on environmental policy.
"When you turn on the kitchen sink, you ought to be able to drink what comes out without worrying about being poisoned," said Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., a chief sponsor of the amendment to a $112.7 billion spending bill for fiscal 2002.
Bush's EPA chief, former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, withdrew the new standards in March, saying there was insufficient scientific evidence to justify the $200 million it would cost municipalities, states and industry each year to meet the new requirements by 2006.
Republicans who opposed the measure said the EPA had put the Clinton rule on hold only to make sure it was scientifically justified, and accused Democrats of putting politics before science.
"While President Bush is moving forward to strengthen the drinking standards for the American people based on sound science, some are more interested in scoring points for partisan politics based on sound bytes," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Whitman called the vote disappointing, saying EPA has initiated three independent studies to be completed in September that will allow it to develop a more protective and more affordable arsenic standard.
"This amendment will not put a standard in place any sooner than planned under EPAOs science-based approach," she said.
Carson City water officials estimate it will cost $6.7 million to reduce the level of arsenic in water to federal-mandated levels by 2006.
City residents would see a $2.67 per month raise in their water bills by 2006 if rates were increased incrementally beginning in 2002.
The Environmental Protection Agency decided Jan. 22 to lower the allowed level of arsenic in water from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb. Of 23 wells tested in Carson City, 10 showed arsenic levels over the 10 ppb mark. All are "peak" wells used between May and October during irrigation season, said Tom Hoffert, city utility director.
The vote was the latest of several in Congress questioning the administration's approach to the environment. In response to the administration's plan to promote new oil and gas production, there have been votes to limit drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, bar drilling under the Great Lakes and prevent new drilling on pristine federal land.
The arsenic standard set by the Clinton EPA was 10 parts per billion of arsenic in drinking water, in line with levels adopted by the World Health Organization and the European Union. The current level of 50 ppb dates back to 1942.
As part of a review of last-minute rules the Clinton administration put in place, the new administration in March put the new ruling on hold subject to further study. It also delayed the date the new rule will go into effect until next February, while leaving a 2006 target date for full compliance.
Whitman has not ruled out the 10 ppb or even a tougher standard, but her office has also sought public comment on a 20 ppb level.
"This has been studied for more than 20 years and to say that this was rushed through or not based on sound science is absurd," said Erik D. Olson, a senior attorney with the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council.
The council, citing National Academy of Science estimates, says the total cancer risk is one in 500 for people drinking tap water with 10 ppb arsenic, but one in 250 at the 20 ppb level. The academy in 1999 issued a report calling for stricter standards, saying arsenic was a potent human carcinogen linked to lung, bladder and skin cancer.
But Rep. Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican, said during the House debate Friday that scientists donOt know the health effects of very low levels of arsenic. She said New Mexico has 150 rural water systems where the naturally occurring level of arsenic is above 10 ppb but not higher levels of cancer attributed to arsenic.
"We do know that if you set that standard so low, it will force rural water systems to close and we'll go back to having untreated water with wells," Wilson said.
Other Western lawmakers voiced similar concerns, and it was unclear whether the Senate, where Western senators tend to have more clout, would approve a similar measure. The mining industry is also opposed to the tougher standards. The Senate has yet to take up the spending bill covering veterans, housing and environmental issues.
House Democrats fell short, by a 214-182 vote, on a second amendment that would have restored $25 million to the EPA's enforcement budget.
Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said the current budget proposal would require the EPA to eliminate 270 positions from the Office of Compliance and Enforcement, resulting in 2,000 fewer inspections a year and an 11 percent reduction in criminal actions.
Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee handling the spending bill, said the money was being shifted to state agencies that do most of the enforcement work.
On the Net:
EPA Office of Water: http://www.epa.gov/ow
Natural Resources Defense Council: http://www.nrdc.org.