Water Policies to Remain Unchanged After Elections

The reelection of President George W. Bush portends no major changes in federal water and wastewater policy, the American Water Works Association has reported.

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The reelection of President George W. Bush portends no major changes in federal water and wastewater policy, the American Water Works Association has reported.

AWWA said the second Bush administration will be focused on foreign policy and homeland security issues. EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt and Assistant Administrator for Water Ben Grumbles are expected to remain at their posts.

The water association said reform of the Clean Air and Endangered Species acts will lead the administration's list of environmental priorities but the mounting federal budget deficit will constrain new federal spending initiatives.

The administration is expected to continue pushing for an energy policy reform bill in the next Congress and that will give producers of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) another opening to seek limited liability from lawsuits. Gasoline leaks have resulted in MTBE pollution of groundwater supplies, spawning numerous lawsuits by governments.

Municipal groups will strongly oppose such a waiver. In October, nine groups lobbied Congress against granting such legal protection. They said a waiver would retroactively block hundreds of lawsuits and leave communities with a $29 billion cleanup bill.

In the regulatory arena, AWWA said the second Bush administration will continue on course with its Stage 2 Disinfection Byproducts Rule and the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surfaced Water Treatment Rule, as well as its review of the Lead and Copper Rule.

The association said Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) should continue to chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which plays a key role in setting water policy, but Sen. James Jeffords (I-VT) may lose his post as the ranking minority member.

A Republican term limits policy will cost Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) his chairmanship of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is likely to get the job.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) will remain chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees key water bills, as will Environment and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Paul Gillmor (R-OH) No major changes are expected on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, headed by Rep. Don Young (R-AK).

AWWA said both the House and Senate are expected to establish permanent Homeland Security committees when the new Congress is seated in January. Membership will be determined later.

Arsenic Ruling

In October the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Nebraska's complaint that the Environmental Protection Agency's revised arsenic rule and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) are unconstitutional.

The high court's rejection of the appeal in effect affirmed a 2003 ruling by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. That court said the state of Nebraska, the town of Alliance, NE, and five small water systems in four states failed to show that the arsenic rule and the SDWA exceed the government's power under the interstate commerce clause, or violated the constitutional provision that reserves for the states all powers not specifically granted to the federal government.

The plaintiffs alleged that Congress, when it passed the SWDA in 1974, illegally expanded the government's regulatory reach to entirely intrastate activities.

The court disagreed on that point, and said SDWA does not compel the states to pass legislation or to enforce the federal arsenic standards.

Lead, Copper Statemen Draws Strong Reactions

A Washington Post article in early October, which suggested that some water utilities have manipulated data to show compliance with the EPA's Lead and Copper Rule, drew strong reactions.

The newspaper examined 65 of the 3,000 largest utilities and said cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, Providence, RI, and Portland, OR, are "manipulating the results of tests used to detect lead in water, violating federal law and putting millions of Americans at risk."

It said its analysis of EPA data identified 274 water systems, serving 11.5 million people, that had reported unsafe lead levels since 2000.

Jack Hoffbuhr, AWWA executive director, said, "There is nothing drinking water professionals take more seriously than the health of the communities they serve. The responsibility of protecting families is paramount.

"Today's article suggests that some drinking water systems intentionally withheld or manipulated lead testing data. Those are serious accusations that deserve serious examination.

"EPA's most recent data suggests that more than 96% of the nation's 54,000 community water systems are in full compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule. This data suggests widespread success in water providers' efforts to minimize lead exposure at the tap."

In a statement, EPA said the quality of US drinking water is among the best in the world.

"EPA's drinking water data, which includes state reporting of 73,000 water utilities from all over the country, demonstrate that lead in drinking water is not a widespread problem. In the limited cases where it is a concern, the agency is working with states, which have primary responsibility for implementation, compliance and enforcement, to notify the public and ensure that lead levels are reduced by controlling for corrosion, and when necessary, replacing lead service lines.

"If there are any utilities that have violated federal law by providing false, incomplete or misleading data on drinking water quality, EPA or the state will pursue appropriate penalties under federal and state law."

Sens. Jeffords and Paul Sarbanes (D-MD.), wrote EPA Administrator Leavitt on the subject. They said, "Clearly, it is time for the federal government to take the recent threats to our public water systems seriously and impose tougher standards and requirements to ensure the public health."

The National Rural Water Association also rebutted numerous media stories alleging a decline in national water quality.

NRWA analyzed publicly available data gathered by EPA regarding compliance with its drinking water quality standards.

The group said, "EPA'S data reflects a trend of increased compliance and fewer violations of the key EPA health standards over the past 9 years."

NRWA said the number of drinking water supplies violating a federal maximum contaminant standard fell from 3,298 in fiscal 1999 to 3,161 in 2000, rose to 3,241 in 2001, and then fell again to 3,193 in fiscal 2002.

The number of violations of a federal maximum contaminant standard fell from 5,528 in fiscal 1999 to 4,754 in 2000, rose to 5,231 in 2001, and then dropped to 4,693 in fiscal 2002.

NRWA analyst Mike Keegan said, "Drinking water protection is perhaps the most important federal environmental program to the public's immediate and long-term health. The EPA rules are incredibly complex and thorough often requiring daily monitoring of drinking water quality and regulating upwards of a hundred contaminants at levels in the part per billion."

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