U.S. Court Upholds EPA Drinking Water Standards

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld EPA's rule setting limits on the permissible level of radionuclides in drinking water.

The regulation retains the existing standards for the radionuclides radium-226, radium-228, and certain beta/photon emitters, and establishes standards for uranium for the first time.

"Today's decision is a victory in our efforts to protect the nation's drinking water supplies," said Tom Sansonetti, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

The court rejected all arguments raised by the petitioners, which included two trade associations and several municipal water systems, including claims that the drinking water standards set by EPA were not based upon the best available science. The court also rejected claims that EPA failed to perform required cost-benefit analyses for the drinking water standards and failed to adequately respond to comments submitted during the rulemaking process.

The rule requires that public water systems continue to treat drinking water to meet longstanding standards for radium-226, radium-228, and certain beta/photon emitters, and establishes a standard for uranium for the first time. The standards are established to protect the public from the potential adverse health effects of radionuclides. Radionuclides emit "ionizing radiation," a known human carcinogen, as they decay. Long-term exposure to radionuclides in drinking water may cause cancer.

In addition to the standards themselves, the rule sets forth monitoring, reporting and public notification requirements for radionuclides. EPA estimates that the rule will provide improved health protection for 420,000 persons through monitoring improvements for the combined radium-226/-228 standard (a carcinogen) and for an additional 620,000 persons through the new standard for uranium (a kidney toxin and carcinogen) in drinking water. The rule will be effective December 8, 2003.

"This ruling upholds EPA's strong commitment to public health protection, public involvement and sound science in undertaking any regulatory action," said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water G. Tracy Mehan III.

The decision, "City of Waukesha v. EPA," and the court's opinion are available at: pacer.cadc.uscourts.gov/docs/common/opinions/200302/01-1028a.pdf.

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