Just Add Water

A two year profile of drinking water quality in the US

May 1, 1996

Just Add Water: Appendix: Pending House Legislation to Weaken Drinking Water Protection

House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (R-VA) proposed legislation on April 19, 1996 that would substantially weaken the current health protections in the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Bliley bill falls well short of the improvements contained in the unanimously-passed 1994 House bill that Chairman Bliley personally negotiated and publicly embraced. His new proposal would also undo much of the unanimously-passed 1995 Senate revision of the Safe Drinking Water Act that the water industry and state and local governments have urged him to adopt.

Among the major provisions weakening current law and the Senate legislation urged by the pesticide industry and/or the chlorine industry and incorporated into Bliley's draft legislation as it stands at press time are proposals that would:

  • Weaken the basic public health standard in current law. Under current law, contaminant standards must protect the public health to the greatest extent feasible. The Bliley bill subverts this clear priority to protect the public health, by adding new cost-benefit provisions that would explicitly allow a certain number of preventable illnesses and even deaths to occur, depending on the cost of treating the contaminant in question. If enacted, polluters and water utilities could use these cost-benefit provisions to force the EPA, when setting standards, to balance the costs of making the water drinkable against the economic value of the human illness and even death that may result from a certain level of drinking water contamination. The bill also adds complex, new, evidentiary and procedural hurdles that the EPA must clear before setting a health standard, and creates new opportunities for industry to challenge these health standards in court.
  • Reopening and Weakening Negotiated Rules to lower health risks from Cryptosporidium and Disinfection By-Products. At the urging of the chlorine industry, the Bliley bill would reopen and likely weaken a 1994 negotiated rule (agreed to by the water industry, states, and many others) that would reduce the amount of cancer-causing disinfection and disinfection by-products in tap water. Under the Bliley draft, once the rule is reopened, it is subject to a confusing and ambiguous risk/cost/benefit analysis. As it now stands, this crucial rule will control Cryptosporidium and perhaps the most significant chemical risk in drinking water, the by-products of disinfection, which have been linked to over 10,000 cancers per year and preliminarily to many serious birth defects.1
  • Allows More Arsenic in Drinking Water. Arsenic contaminates the drinking water of 50 million Americans. The Bliley bill delays a court ordered update of the safety standard for arsenic and applies the weakened standard setting provisions when the arsenic standard is finally set.
  • Allows high levels of radon in drinking water. Radon, a known human carcinogen, contaminates the drinking water of 80 million Americans. The bill would mandate a standard of 3000 picocuries per liter for radon, 10 times higher than the standard proposed by EPA in 1992.
  • Allows 50 million people in small communities to drink water with higher levels of chemical and microbial contaminants than people in large cities. The Bliley bill requires waivers ("variances") of health standards for both microbial and chemical contaminants to be issued upon petition to 90 percent of the nation's smaller water systems (those serving fewer than 10,000 people each) if they meet certain newly broadened criteria. The bill deletes the 1995 Senate bill's prohibition on waiving standards for microbial contaminants, or contaminants regulated before 1986 (like arsenic or lead). It does not provide EPA or citizen objections to variances as allowed in the Senate bill, and deletes the Senate's requirement for EPA guidance on variances. Exemptions would not need to include schedules of compliance for additional control measures.
  • Rolls back water safety monitoring requirements for over 90% of the nation's water systems. The new draft of the Bliley bill allows over 90 percent of the nation's public water systems (those serving 10,000 people or fewer) to receive waivers for any chemical contamination safety monitoring requirements