Don’t Lower the Bridge - Raise the Water (quality, that is!)

Never in my 30 years of experience in the water and wastewater industry have I been so incensed over a public policy issue...

Never in my 30 years of experience in the water and wastewater industry have I been so incensed over a public policy issue that will threaten public health and undermine public confidence in our nation’s water systems.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a proposed rule in the March 2 issue of the Federal Register (Vol. 71, No. 41, pp. 10671-85) that would lower the threshold for drinking water standards as they apply to the approximate 50,000 small water systems in the U.S.

The Agency would accomplish this, first, by changing the definition of “affordability” under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The current law states that if treatment technology costs do not cause median water bills to exceed 2.5 percent of median household income (MHI), they are considered “affordable”. In the case of the smallest systems serving between 25-500 population, the MHI is $44,544, making a $1,114 annual water bill “affordable” under the current definition. In reality, today’s median water bill for households in this smallest systems size is significantly less, only $300 a year.

So what is EPA proposing? That the 2.5 percent threshold be reduced to as little as 0.25 percent of MHI. This would make compliance technologies deemed “unaffordable” if they raised the median water bill from $300 to $410 per year for the smallest of systems. Why do this? Because - and I quote from the Federal Register - “EPA has found no national primary drinking water standards ‘unaffordable’ for small systems.” Can you imagine that? There hasn’t been one standard developed that is unaffordable so let’s fix this dilemma by lowering the definition of affordability. What a novel idea!

Wait . . . it gets even better! Under current law, if EPA cannot determine affordable compliance technologies for small systems, it must identify affordable variance technologies that are “protective of public health.” So how does EPA define “protective of public health?” The proposal on the table is that a variance technology is sufficiently protective of public health “... if the concentration of the target contaminant after treatment by the variance technology is no more than three times the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL).”

That means if you use a variance technology, you can have three times as much of a toxic contaminant in the water than called for in the national standard and be in compliance. Keep in mind that the enforceable MCL standards established for these contaminants already took affordability into account within an adequate margin of safety.

In the case of the arsenic rule, instead of restricting the amount arsenic allowed in drinking water to 10 parts per billion (ppb), small systems could have as much as 30 ppb of this poison in their water and be deemed safe, according to this proposal. Aren’t citizens in small communities entitled to the same degree of health protection as their neighbors in larger communities? If 30 ppb is safe for small system customers, why not for everyone?

This is not an “affordability” problem; this is a public health “reality” that cannot be ignored.

No one is suggesting that compliance with the Arsenic rule would be easily achieved. That’s why EPA gave communities five years to comply with the rule that was published back in January 2001. Systems serving 3,300 persons or less are afforded an additional nine years to comply. That makes for a total of 14 years from the date the rule was finalized for small communities to achieve compliance!

Tremendous progress has already been made by equipment manufacturers since promulgation of the rule to develop more affordable technologies to help communities achieve the 10 ppb mandate. Changing the rules in mid-course will only undermine further progress to research and develop new technologies to help small communities comply with this and other drinking water regulations.

It further undermines the credibility of states that have gone the extra mile to protect their citizens by requiring tighter standards beyond those established at the national level, as in the case of New Jersey’s 5 ppb MCL for arsenic.

Let us not fool ourselves in believing that this proposed rule won’t have potential implications for communities of all sizes. How can a state official grant a variance to a small community, saying it is safe to have 30 ppb of arsenic in their drinking water, when it is not safe for all communities, regardless of size?

Let us also not ignore the horrific public perception that will be created about the safety of our public water supplies when it is learned that public water systems are providing different levels of protection of the water leaving the tap.

This proposal is simply bad policy.

Instead of lowering the bar on what is considered safe and jeopardizing public health due to the problems faced by certain economically challenged households, we should be looking at ways to help these hardship customers by developing creative financing tools targeted toward their unique economic needs.

EPA’s own Environmental Financial Advisory Board just released a report on Affordability Rate Design for Households which concluded that “water and wastewater affordability is primarily a household problem, not a community-level problem, and in these cases can be mitigated through careful design of utility policies regarding subsidy, rates, collections, and financial assistance.”

There are many excellent programs beginning to be put in place at the state and local level to help communities of all sizes meeting their environmental challenges. EPA should listen to its own economic advisors in this matter and not lose sight of its mission to protect human health and the environment.

About the author:

Dawn Kristof is president of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association. WWEMA has operated since 1908 as a Washington, D.C.-based, non-profit trade organization representing the interests of companies that serve the water and wastewater industry.

More in Environmental