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The Planet

One Year After Contamination Disaster, New Perils to Drinking Water-from Congress

The Planet, July 1994, Volume 1, number 1

By Amy Wilson

Although the Senate last month passed a somewhat weakened Safe Drinking Water Act, a last-ditch effort by environmentalists and public health activists prevented outright disaster.

But Sierra Club leaders warn that the real threat to the Safe Drinking Water Act lies in the House, which is poised to approve legislation they say could endanger the health of millions of Americans.

The dangers of drinking tap water were thrust into the national spotlight last year in Milwaukee, when 400,000 people became ill and over 100 died after drinking contaminated water.

"The Senate vote revealed that Congress is willing to dismantle the nation's only law that protects drinking water standards," said Blake Early, director of the Sierra Club's Environmental Quality Program. It also showed that the only way to keep the House from doing just that is to mobilize a massive public outcry for safe drinking water. "

The Senate bill sets up a $1 billion annual loan fund for small systems to finance water cleanups. But it also relaxes standards for small- and medium-sized water systems, which together serve over 40 million citizens nationwide.

In addition, the bill replaces a provision that required the Environmental Protection Agency to set safe levels for an additional 25 new water contaminants every three years with a schedule that requires the agency to regulate only nine new contaminants over the next five years.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) managed to inject a strengthening amendment that requires the EPA, when setting drinking water standards, to consider people who are most vulnerable to contaminants--pregnant women, children, the elderly, those with chronic diseases and residents of communities that are exposed to high levels of toxins.

But the Senate also approved weakening provisions backed by a coalition of governors and mayors who complain that they cannot comply with the safe drinking water law because, they claim, it is too expensive and too complicated.

Environmentalists say that the Safe Drinking Water Act reauthorization bill in the House, H.R 3392, degrades standards even further than the Senate bill does.

Introduced by Reps. Jim Slattery (by Kan.) and Thomas Bliley (R-Va.), the bill requires a cost-benefit-based standard that fails to protect those most vulnerable to tap water contaminants. In addition, it scales back or eliminates public warning procedures and allows small water systems to be exempted from water safety testing requirements.

"The Senate listened to the wrong message," said Doris Cellarius, chair of the Sierra Club's Public Health Task Force. "It's critical now that the right message get through to the House--Americans need to stand up and demand high drinking water standards from their representatives."

Pulling the Plug on Safety

Most U.S. cities and towns rely on crumbling water systems that were built shortly after World War I with Victorian-era technology.

The Safe Drinking Water Act, enacted in 1974, called on public and private water agencies to test their water supplies for compliance with federal safety standards, inform the public of failure to meet those standards, and install technology adequate to ensure that drinking water is indeed safe. At the same time, Congress mandated the EPA to establish safety levels for several contaminants known to threaten public health.

But 12 years passed before Congress set specific deadlines for the EPA to implement the law. During that time, the EPA set standards for only two water contaminants.

Finally, prodded into action by a series of citizen lawsuits, the EPA began in 1986 to enforce rules for safe drinking water standards.

The result was a backlash by public water agencies, mayors and governors. Instead of complying with the law, they complained that Congress should not demand safe water unless it was willing to foot the bill.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 1 million U.S. residents get sick each year--and 900 die--from drinking water contaminated with bacteria, viruses and other agents of disease. In Las Vegas this spring, 19 died after drinking water contaminated with the same parasite that caused the Milwaukee tragedy.

"Americans should not have to play Russian roulette with their health every time they turn on the tap. Safe, clean drinking water should be a fundamental right for every citizen," said Cellarius.

What You Can Do

Urge your representative not to co-sponsor the Slattery/Bliley bill, but to fight for a stronger Safe Drinking Water Act that would

  • Toughen drinking water standard to protect the most vulnerable
  • Maintain the provisions protecting small water systems that serve between 3,300 and 10,000 people.
  • Strengthen provisions to reduce suspended solids and bacteria in raw water supplies.
  • Increase funding to help systems pay for improvements.
  • Strengthen the EPA's enforcement authority to ensure that safe drinking water standards are met.

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