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Natural Resources Defense Council sues EPA to support even lower arsenic standard

by R.J. DeLuke, Managing Editor
from WaterTech Online www.waternet.com 

WASHINGTON The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) hopes a federal lawsuit it filed against the US Environmental Protection Agency will further lower the nation's standard for the amount of arsenic allowable in drinking water.

On 14 December, NRDC filed its third lawsuit regarding the arsenic issue. Erik D. Olson, a senior lawyer for NRDC, an environmental group whose lawsuits forced the Clinton Administration to propose a lower arsenic standard prior to this last year's action by the Bush Administration, said Wednesday, 2 January, the latest litigation was filed in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

He said the very brief document simply serves notice that NRDC is challenging the 10 parts per billion (ppb) limit established in 2001. It does not specify any limit NRDC is seeking, but Olson said this morning "our position has been, since 2000, and probably before that, that it ought to be 3 ppb."

He said the newest report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) submitted to the EPA, "strongly reinforces the need for a strict arsenic standard."

The NAS study he referred to was released in September 2001 and said the EPA underestimated the cancer risks of arsenic in drinking water. The report said the cancer risks are high even for low levels of arsenic in tap water.

President Bush eventually signed a law changing the standard of 50 ppb of arsenic in drinking water that had been in place since 1942. The change to a 10-ppb national standard for drinking water was recommended during the Clinton Administration, but delayed at the start of 2001 by the Bush Administration. Officials eventually backtracked and adopted the change. EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said water systems would be required to meet the new standard by 2006.

Olson said the first NRDC suit was filed when the Bush administration didn't follow through with the Clinton recommendation. Another legal challenge was filed when some industry groups sued to prevent a lower arsenic limit. The latest lawsuit is to make sure there are no settlement talks with the industry groups that result in a limit higher than 10 ppb, as well as to get government looking at a lower standard.

Olson said the court will likely consolidate all of the various lawsuits on either side of the issue into one question that it will take a look at. He said he expected that the process will be lengthy and a quick decision is unlikely.