Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

EPA Takes Aim at Drinking Water Contamination

After spending nearly a decade on the sidelines as public concern grew over contamination of U.S. drinking water, the Environmental Protection Agency has rolled out plans to step up and streamline its efforts to make sure that tap water is safe.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson outlined the new approach on March 22 before a conference of metropolitan water suppliers in Washington, DC, saying the agency will not seek new regulations but will use “our existing regulations more efficiently and more effectively.” The four key components of the EPA strategy are to:

  • assess and regulate contaminants in related groups rather than one-by-one;
  • promote development of new and better water treatment technologies;
  • expand use of powers already granted under several federal statutes, including pesticide and chemicals regulation laws, to protect drinking water; and
  • build partnerships with state and local authorities, which directly monitor and regulate drinking water quality, and collect data from them on an ongoing basis.

The agency also said it will beginning the process of setting stricter safety standards for four well-known carcinogens that turn up widely in drinking water.

“It’s an approach that works within existing law and capitalizes on the idea of new innovations,” Jackson told members of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), welcomed the EPA initiative but emphasized that federal law still falls well short of what’s needed to guarantee that drinking water is safe, especially for children. Late last year EWG released an unprecedented database of 20 million municipal water testing results it had assembled. That data showed that since 2004, the drinking water of 256 million Americans in 48,000 communities had contained measurable amounts of known contaminants. The EWG database found that a total of 316 separate contaminants had been detected during routine water testing in 45 states, among them 202 that are not currently subject to any regulation or safety standards

“It’s been a long time coming, but it’s good to see Administrator Jackson once again taking action to redress a decade of regulatory neglect,” Cook said. EPA last issued new rules for drinking water quality in 2001, when it set a standard for arsenic contamination after a long-drawn-out regulatory process.

The fundamental problem, said Richard Wiles, EWG Senior Vice President for Policy and Communications, is that the Safe Drinking Water Act compromises on safety by requiring regulators to adjust their safety standards based on the costs and availability of existing water treatment technologies.

“The law requires the EPA to work backwards to find a level of contamination that the agency doesn’t necessarily think is safe, but that instead is feasible to achieve,” said Wiles said. “This is the core issue that needs to be addressed.

EWG officials, however, praised the EPA’s decision to regulate pollutants in groups, replacing the current system of evaluating them one-by-one in what is often a costly and years-long process.

Ken Cook also took note of the agency’s new commitment to address the neglected problem of source water protection – ensuring that chemicals do not foul aquifers, rivers and lakes. EWG’s report last year noted that utilities spend more than $4 billion a year on chemicals used to treat drinking water, 20 times more than the federal government spends on preventing drinking water pollution.

“The costs of providing safe drinking water would be far lower if we could just keep toxic chemicals out of water supplies in the first place,” said Cook. “We hope that the administration, EPA and Congress will focus on that part of the problem even as EPA steps up its regulatory efforts.”

EPA’s Jackson said that the agency would use its powers under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Toxic Substances Control Act, in addition to the Clean Drinking Water Act, in its effort to better protect water quality “and provide relevant health effects and exposure data.” She noted that EPA regulators enforcing all three laws had tended to work “in silos,” rather than sharing data and collaborating in areas where their efforts overlap.

The four cancer-causing chemicals targeted by EPA for tougher regulation are:

  • tetrachloroethylene
  • trichloroethylene
  • acrylamide
  • epichlorohydrin

The first two are industrial solvents widely used in the automotive industry, metalworking, rubber processing, some textile manufacturing. Tetrachloroethylene is also used in dry cleaning. Both tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene are already subject to federal water quality standards. EWG’s database showed that tens of millions of people in 27 states have been supplied at some point with water that contained the chemical at levels above the legal limit, and in 40 states at levels that exceeded recommended health guidelines. Trichloroethylene was found above the enforceable limit in 18 states and above recommended health guidelines in 39 states. Both substances are suspected carcinogens and have been shown to cause a wide variety of other serious health effects.

Ironically, acrylamide and epichlorohydrin are deliberately added to some drinking water supplies as part of the water treatment process. The EPA said it would collaborate with universities and the private sector to try to develop better treatment processes that rely less on these and other toxic substances.

The EPA said it would begin the process of setting new standards for the two industrial chemicals “within the next year.” Revising the standards for acrylamide and epichlorohydrin “will follow later.” Meanwhile, the agency said it is continuing an ongoing process to update or set drinking water standards for 14 other contaminants, including lead, copper, chromium, fluoride, arsenic, the pesticide atrazine and perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel and explosives. Some advocates have criticized the slow pace of EPA’s work on revising these standards.

The Water Administrators Association said in a statement that it “is encouraged to learn about the new strategies to protect drinking water announced by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson at our Water Policy Conference. We look forward to working with EPA on the details of these principles to develop new technologies and more complete monitoring data that can make drinking water protection more effective and cost-efficient.”

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