The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said it will sue to challenge the Bush administration''s suspension of the new arsenic-in-tap-water standard and right-to-know requirements issued in the final days of the Clinton administration.
NRDC said that the Bush administration''s suspension of the arsenic protections "is scientifically unwarranted, illegal and flies in the face of what the administration concedes is ''overwhelming'' public opposition expressed by thousands of comments."
"The Bush administration''s decision to suspend the new arsenic-in-tap-water rule in the face of what it calls ''overwhelming'' public opposition is stunningly arrogant and wrongheaded," said Erik Olson, an NRDC senior attorney.
Olson noted that the administration has acknowledged that in the two weeks it provided for public input, between April 23 and May 7, it received more than 12,000 comments, and "the overwhelming number" opposed the suspension of the arsenic rule due to health concerns.
"Unfortunately, President Bush apparently won''t listen to reason, scientific evidence, or the will of the American public, so NRDC is left no choice but to sue," said Olson.
EPA delayed the standard in March that cut levels of cancer-causing arsenic in the nation''s drinking water from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb.
The official announcement of the nine-month suspension was published in Tuesday''s Federal Register.
NRDC and other public health advocates believe EPA should have lowered the standard for arsenic in drinking water to 3 ppb.
NRDC charges that the Bush administration''s announcement relies on a flawed argument that although it has suspended the rule, it has not violated the law''s requirement that the updated standard must be in place by June 22, 2001.
EPA argues that the suspended Jan. 22, 2001, arsenic rule will fulfill the law''s requirement, even though its recent action effectively takes the rule off the books.
"The administration''s suspension of the arsenic rule is illegal because 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act required EPA to put a final rule in place by Jan. 1 of this year, a date that was pushed back to June 22 by an appropriations order," said Olson.
Although the administration says it will issue the new standard next year and ensure it is enforced in 2006, Olson said the tortured history of arsenic regulations suggests this is extremely unlikely.
"EPA made a legal finding in its January 2001 rule that it would take water systems five years to comply with a new arsenic standard," said Olson. "The agency likely will face stiff legal challenges from industry if it tries to cut his five-year compliance period when, and if, it issues a new arsenic standard in 2002 and seeks to require compliance by 2006."
In general, arsenic can contaminate drinking water through natural processes, such as erosion of rocks and minerals. It can also contaminate drinking water when used for industrial purposes.
Prolonged exposure to high levels of arsenic have been linked to an increased risk of bladder, lung, skin, kidney and liver cancer.
by Virginia Sutcliffe