Mayors Question Costs of Bottled Water Usage

June 1, 2008
The U.S. Conference of Mayors continues to question the underling costs of the growing use of bottled water.

by Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The U.S. Conference of Mayors continues to question the underling costs of the growing use of bottled water.

The mayors passed a resolution in June 2007 to gather data on how increasing bottled water use contributes to solid waste and undermines local government investments in municipal water and sewers.

San Francisco, Albuquerque, Minneapolis, Seattle, and other cities have banned the purchase of single-serve bottled water by their city departments, citing concerns about the cost of bottled water and its impact on city budgets, as well as bottled water’s contribution to solid waste.

At a joint meeting in May, the Mayors Water Council and the Municipal Waste Management Association, an environmental affiliate of the conference, reported that even the cheapest bottled water can cost from 1,000 to more than 4,000 times per unit volume than municipal tap water.

They said recycling rates for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic used to produce most water bottles, has declined over the past decade while bottle water consumption has risen considerably. They said while water bottles are a small proportion of the solid waste stream, they totaled more than 827,000 tons of scrap PET in 2006.

The Cadmus Group Inc. reported to the Mayors Water Council that investing in drinking water and sewer systems only yields positive returns: generally a $1 increase in spending on water and sewer infrastructure yields a savings of as much as $2.62. It also said adding one local water or sewer job can lead to 3.68 support jobs in the national economy.

Separately, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) said water in polycarbonate plastic bottles is safe, despite recent news stories questioning the safety of polycarbonate containing bisphenol A (BPA).

IBWA said many 3- and 5-gallon bottled water containers are made of polycarbonate plastic. It the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water as a food product and has determined there is no danger if the plastics are used as intended in food-contact applications.

Senate Holds Hearings OnPharmaceuticals in Water

Witnesses at a recent Senate subcommittee hearing disagreed on whether trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in drinking water posed a public health risk.

The Environment and Public Works subcommittee called the hearing after the Associated Press reported tests had found trace levels of prescription and non-prescription drugs in the water of 24 major metropolitan areas.

Water associations said the presence of pharmaceutical compounds in drinking water is not new, but advanced technologies have permitted more substances to be detected at lower levels than ever before.

They and pharmaceutical groups said trace levels of drugs in drinking water have not been found to impact human health.

Shane Snyder, a manager with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, testified for the American Water Works Association (AWWA). He said the important thing is the effect of drugs in water, not their concentrations, and the highest concentrations detected were 5 million times lower than one would take in a medical dose.

“I can tell you with absolute certainty that, if we regulate contaminants based upon detection rather than health effects, we are embarking on a futile journey without end,” Snyder said.

Snyder said EPA should review pharmaceutical compounds in water under its Contaminant Candidate List process that uses a science-driven process to ensure regulations are necessary, reasonable, and protect public health.

Benjamin Grumbles, the Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator for water, said EPA was not alarmed by pharmaceuticals in water supplies. He said the agency is examining contaminants of concern that have undetermined health effects and it will improve its risk communication with the public.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), committee chair, told Grumbles, “When it comes to informing the public, the Associated Press is doing your work.”

Boxer said many pharmaceuticals are designed to work at very low levels and contaminants in water may harm pregnant women and children.

“EPA has failed to require the needed testing to determine the effects of these chemicals at low levels,” she said. “EPA is now nearly 6 years behind the schedule established in a court settlement to list the endocrine disrupting chemicals it will test. And EPA still has not even established all of the tests needed to detect these chemicals, much less evaluated the chemicals using those tests.”

David Pringle testified for Clean Water Action and the New Jersey Environmental Federation. He said rather than regulate contaminants “chemical by chemical,” more money should be spent to upgrade treatment plants.

“The presence of pharmaceuticals in the nation’s water highlights how severely flawed the current regulatory framework for water protection is. Even adding one more substance to the regulated list can be a lengthy, costly and frustrating process,” Pringle said.

Rep Objects to RelaxedAffordability Criteria

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs a key House Energy and Commerce environmental subcommittee, has objected to EPA’s plan to relax affordability criteria to allow small water systems variances from Safe Drinking Water Act standards.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, Waxman said the proposal could “expose significant populations in the U.S. to chemical contamination levels in drinking water that are up to three times what the law now allows.”

EPA plans to complete the rule later this year.

Waxman said AWWA and other water groups oppose the policy. He said the National Drinking Water Advisory Council has recommended such variances only after alternatives, such as more financial aid for small systems and improved technology, are tried.

The congressman said not only is there little need for small system variances but also state agencies could be flooded with requests, raising technical, administrative, and logistical problems.

The National Resources Defense Council agreed with Waxman. NRDC said the policy would undermine the quality of drinking water provided to the nation’s poorest communities, despite the advice of scientific advisers and some members of Congress.

In other Washington news:

  • The Census Bureau has reported that the U.S. manufacturing sector spent $5.9 billion on capital expenditures and $20.7 billion on operating costs for pollution prevention and treatment in 2005. The sector’s expenditures were less than 5% of new capital expenditures and less than 1% of revenue.
  • A survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production has found that state laws regulating animal feed lots vary widely. Although EPA regulates runoff, the survey found that compliance is spotty. Some states, such as Oklahoma, impose their own standards.
  • The National Research Council said technological advances have made removing salt from seawater and groundwater a realistic option for increasing water supplies in some parts of the U.S. It predicted desalination would likely have a niche in meeting the nation’s future water needs.
  • EPA is giving New York City $12 million to help it develop a drinking water contamination warning system. The pilot project, called the Water Security Initiative, is expected to be applicable to other major drinking water utilities.
  • The Western States Water Council and the Western Governors’ Association have warned that the West faces a growing water supply problem. They said the federal government’s receipts from the Reclamation Fund exceed appropriations by $1 billion annually and more money should be sent to operate, maintain, and expand reclamation projects.
  • Congress has enacted a bill to study ways to clean contaminated water produced with oil and gas so that it can be used for irrigation and other purposes in the arid West.
  • EPA has released a computer program to help drinking water and wastewater systems with less than 1,000 connections manage their operations. The program is titled, the Check Up Program for Small Systems (CUPSS).
  • EPA is making nearly $5 million available to state and territories to help implement drinking water security improvements such as first responder readiness, emergency training, and mutual aid compacts among utilities.
  • The House of Representatives passed the Beach Protection Act, which authorizes federal funds for beach water quality protection and requires EPA to develop a rapid testing/monitoring method to determine unsafe beach water.

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