U.S. Water News Online
WASHINGTON -- A recent study by two environmental groups has a lot of Americans wondering if their tap water is safe.
The controversial findings of the study -- that one in six Americans gets water from a utility that has had recent pollution problems -- have prompted concern over proposed changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.
The act is now due for reauthorization. A subcommittee vote is scheduled for May 31 on proposed bills in both the House and the Senate, with a vote expected in early June.
The study, called Just Add Water, was made by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) using data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the report, EWG and NRDC analyzed more than 16 million records submitted by public water supplies to state water agencies and the EPA. These records are compiled in a computerized system known as the Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS).
"More than 45 million Americans in thousands of communities were served drinking water during 1994-1995 that was polluted with fecal matter, parasites, disease causing microbes, radiation, pesticides, toxic chemicals, and lead [when related to] standards established under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act," the report reads.
Just Add Water claims more than 18,500 public water supplies reported at least one violation of a federal drinking water standard during this two-year period.
The report has received strong criticism from water utilities, which argue that the data has been used to exaggerate pollution problems, making sporadic incidents appear as chronic problems. One critic, the American Water Works Association (AWWA), has issued a detailed rebuttal of the report. The AWWA is composed of more than 54,000 water suppliers and public utilities in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
"The last thing we want," said Al Warburton, AWWA's Director for Legislative Affairs, "is to roll back water standards. The proposed changes in the law are needed," he said, "to bring all water systems -- including smaller systems, which have often lagged behind in this area -- into compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act."
Punitive measures, such as exacting fines for violations, Warburton explained, are not enough. He said the new legislation will provide the flexibility and the incentives to bring more water systems into compliance.
Warburton said the AWWA supports "the capacity development program" in the revised bill, which will enable smaller utilities to comply -- technically and financially -- with the Safe Drinking Water Act. The program, he explained, provides incentives such as the consolidation of smaller systems or better watershed planning to prevent pollution, and a variety of other innovative solutions to maintaining water quality standards.
Warburton argued that such flexibility should not weaken water quality standards. For example, he said, "under the proposed bill "if a utility wants access to state revolving funds, they must have certified operators."
Public interest groups, however have expressed concern that provisions in the new bill would exempt smaller water systems from frequent testing, as well as providing a "microbial waiver" to smaller utility systems, which frequently cannot afford elaborate filtration systems for such microbes as cryptosporidiumater-borne parasite which can be a serious health threat.
"The environmentalists were right on that one," Warburton said of the "microbial waiver" provision introduced in the first bill. "We did not support that. We expect a provision mandating microbial protection to be reinserted in the revised version of the bill."
Richard Wiles, vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group, said he wholeheartedly supports measures in the new bill designed to encourage watershed management and source water protection, but managers of public water supplies, he said, may need enhanced authority to carry out such a mandate. "The political constraints preventing comprehensive planning and management are very real," he said.
Wiles said EWG does not blame the utilities for pollution problems, but insists that water providers be more forthcoming in notifying consumers of contaminants often found in drinking water, their potential risks, and enlist public support in eradicating problems, rather than minimizing them. He is concerned that the new law omits any requirement that water system operators notify consumers of contamination problems.
And some of the current federal water standards, Wiles added, merit further tightening, due to scientific data already available on the risks of certain chemical exposures.
The current law according to both Warburton and Wiles, would not necessarily "weaken" the current water standard for arsenic, for example. Rather it adopts a "further study needed" approach, leaving current standards in place.
The arsenic standard now in place, said Wiles, dates back to 1942, when it was evaluated only for its acute poisonous effects. But by 1962, he noted, the Public Health Service recommended lowering the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water due to data it had collected on its carcinogenic effects -- i.e. its potential for causing cancer.
"A case may be made for some of the provisions in this bill which call for further study," Wiles said. "but this is not one of them. We already have ample evidence on this. Our current arsenic standard is clearly out of touch with present scientific knowledge."
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