- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001

Like Ronald Reagan designating ketchup as a vegetable and George Bush the Elder marvelling at a grocery

scanning device, George W. Bush has given his critics the chance to reduce his presidency to a derisive cartoon. To say his cancellation of an EPA regulation reducing the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water has had a poor reception is an understatement.

His opponents portray this as the worst hydration-related decision since Jim Jones´ followers drank poisoned punch. They claim it exposes Mr. Bush as a villain who is cozy with corporate polluters and indifferent to public health.

The truth is more flattering to Mr. Bush suggesting a president refusing to be stampeded into a bad decision out of fear that demagogues will call him names.

The EPA arsenic rule, issued in the last days of the Clinton administration, would have cut maximum arsenic concentrations in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. That may sound like an irreproachable effort to protect Americans from a deadly pollutant. But the available science indicates no cause for alarm.

In many places where it is found, including vast stretches of the West, arsenic is naturally present in ground water, rather than being dumped by evil corporations. But the amount of arsenic currently allowed is so tiny that further reductions may yield no health benefits whatsoever. The administration therefore made the sensible choice not to go forward with the regulation.

Does that mean it is content with the status quo? No. Overlooked in all the controversy is that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman has promised the old limit will be reduced, not maintained but only in accord with "strong science and a thorough cost analysis."

Hysterics in the environmental movement, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, insist that "many will die from arsenic-related cancers and other diseases" thanks to this decision. But impartial experts have their doubts. A report last year by the Congressional Research Service found that "scientific uncertainty regarding the health effects associated with low-level arsenic exposures remains."

A 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the existing 50 ppb standard is too loose but demurred at agreeing that it should be reduced to 10 ppb. That document, much trumpeted by environmentalists, also noted something they have not publicized: "No human studies of sufficient statistical power have examined whether consumption of drinking water at the current maximum contaminant level results in an increased incidence of cancer or noncancer effects." The EPA´s science advisory board said that the agency´s assessment tended to exaggerate the risk considerably.

The benefits of the proposed regulation, it turns out, may be imaginary. The costs are not. More than 90 percent of the water systems that would have been affected by the regulation are in small, rural communities, for which the expense would be a crushing burden.

Lidgerwood, N.D., for example, spent nearly $1 million to cut arsenic levels from 56 ppb to 17 and complying with the Clinton rule would have cost another $1.5 million. That´s a huge outlay for a town of only 400 homes.

The National Rural Water Association (NRWA) estimates that Chesapeake Ranch, Md., would see its water rates soar by $72 per month, per home. The town´s two wells currently fail to meet the 10 ppb standard: One is at 12 ppb and one is at 11. No one seriously believes this reduction would prevent a single case of cancer. Every customer served by the water system would have paid dearly to banish a phantom.

Some towns may think the possible health benefits are well worth the cost and they are free to adopt the tighter standard anytime they want. But few of their residents seem to think the money would be well spent.

"I have not heard of any towns that have chosen to go as low as 10 ppb," says Mike Keegan, a policy analyst for the NRWA. As he notes, "These communities are governed and operated by people whose families drink the water every day, and are locally elected by their community." Why aren´t they capable of deciding for themselves whether their health is worth the money, instead of ceding that decision to Washington?

The Clinton EPA thought it had a duty to make people spend large sums of money to protect themselves from an alleged danger that most of them do not regard as worthy of their concern. The Bush EPA has elected not to enforce such a mandate until it is sure the change will do some good, at a bearable cost. Mr. Bush may have provided easy fodder for demagogues, editorial cartoonists and other practitioners of oversimplification. But his policy is the only sensible one.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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