News | May 25, 2001

National Council advises EPA on arsenic, other strategic issues

"Arsenic is on a very fast track…we're working at just about warp speed." - Cynthia Dougherty, EPA Director of Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water (OGWDW)

By Nancy L. Pontius, Pontius Water Consultants, Inc.

Review of the arsenic rule
Integration of SDWA and CWA
Strategy for water-born microbial disease
Ability of states to implement SDWA
Infrastructure funding

Arsenic, integration of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and Clean Water Act (CWA) programs, and water-born microbial disease were among topics tackled by EPA and members of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) meeting in El Paso, Texas last week.

The NDWAC is a federal advisory committee of stakeholder representatives appointed by the EPA administrator to advise the agency on drinking water issues. Dougherty intends to make the NDWAC a "vibrant part of policy discussions to help how we develop products."

Review of the arsenic rule
EPA has initiated four parallel reviews of arsenic issues, Dougherty noted:

  • First, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) subcommittee will update its 1999 report on arsenic health risks. The subcommittee will also review the relevant 50 to 75 peer-reviewed technical articles on arsenic health risks published since the 1999 report.

    NDWAC chair David Spath, California chief of drinking water and environmental management, expressed sentiment echoed by many state regulators concerning the arsenic MCL, "it bothers me that it is more of an art than science on the benefit side (of the risk analysis). (Compliance) costs are tangible, but the benefits are truly estimates, best judgments, and opinions."

  • Second, EPA will soon request public comment on arsenic maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) of 3 parts per billion (ppb), 5 ppb, 10 ppb, and 20 ppb.

    NDWAC member Diana Neidle, public policy associate at the Consumer Federation of America, believes that "any (new) MCL above 10 ppb will be considered dangerous (by the public), because EPA set the MCL at 10 ppb before."

  • Third, EPA will evaluate the tools and assistance mechanisms available to small systems to comply with the arsenic rule.

  • Fourth, a NDWAC subcommittee will review estimated arsenic compliance costs of utilities. This cost review has been prompted by a discrepancy of $350 million per year between EPA's estimated compliance costs and those calculated by the American Water Works Research Foundation (AWWARF). Last week's NDWAC discussed similarities and differences between these two cost estimates.

    The NDWAC and EPA have selected members of the subcommittee, which will meet for the first time May 29 - 30.

EPA will assess the results of these four reviews, and issue a notice in the fall of their plans, Dougherty said. Spath mused, "Can a group of experts provide more comments than EPA already has (on the arsenic rule)?"

During an emotional public comment portion of the NDWAC meeting, El Paso water utility officials reported that they need $95 million to comply with an arsenic MCL of 10 ppb. This total includes $37 million of distribution system changes that are not accounted for by EPA or AWWARF cost estimates. In addition, several environmental groups were outspoken in their view that the health risks associated with arsenic justify whatever cost is necessary. Also, "an arsenic level of 10 ppb allows higher health risk levels than MCLs (for other contaminants)," asserted Sparky Anderson of the Texas Clean Water Action. (Return to top)

Integration of SDWA and CWA
EPA's Bill Diamond, Director of the Drinking Water Protection Division in OGWDW, presented the agency's plans to coordinate the SDWA and CWA programs. Although both programs have complementary goals and programs, in practice the goals of protecting public health and protecting the environment have been treated separately, and these programs have not been well coordinated, he said.

For example, sometimes CWA and SDWA requirements conflict, noted NDWAC member Vicki Ray, Manager of Kentucky's Drinking Water Branch. For example, a utility may decide to violate the requirements of the SDWA to avoid violating the CWA, she said.

Dougherty noted that SDWA source water protection fits very well with CWA watershed protection. One aspect of EPA's strategy will be to stress consideration of drinking water issues during the CWA process of establishing total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), because drinking water issues are not considered now.

The NDWAC drafted a one-page resolution to administrator Whitman supporting SDWA and CWA integration plans. (Return to top)

Strategy for water-born microbial disease
"Microbial risk is probably the largest remaining public health risk (in drinking water)," said Ephraim King, EPA's Director of Standards and Risk Management Division in OGWDW, possibly causing 10 million cases of gastro-intestinal illness annually. The agency is developing a strategy related to the integration of SDWA and CWA programs, particularly regarding source water protection, so that contaminants never enter water to begin with, said Dougherty.

In addition, studies and disease outbreaks have led EPA to question how protected groundwater is from microbial contamination. But "this is the first time EPA has discussed their proposed strategy publicly," noted Dougherty. (Return to top)

Ability of states to implement SDWA
Many states are struggling to fully implement SDWA requirements, and lack adequate funding, staffing, and training. For example, in Kentucky, over 50% of Ray's state implementation staff is brand new to drinking water, and there are currently 5 staff vacancies. EPA training on new rules is often not timely, she said, and hiring experienced staff is very difficult, particularly for engineers, primarily due to lower salaries offered by states.

EPA is working with the Association for State Drinking Water Administrators to thoroughly survey all states to assess funding and staffing needs to fully implement the SDWA, projecting out to 2010. EPA hopes to have draft results of this detailed national survey in October 2001. The agency intends to use the results to help states implement innovative solutions. (Return to top)

Infrastructure funding
EPA presented an overview of projected infrastructure funding needs for drinking water systems.

EPA and the NDWAC acknowledged the magnitude of projected funding needs, and they will form an infrastructure subcommittee in the fall, after EPA gathers data, and EPA's new assistant administrator of water gives project direction, said Dougherty. (Return to top)

About the author: Nancy L. Pontius is co-founder of Pontius Water Consultants Inc., and provides technical communication services to the water industry. Pontius Water Consultants specializes in drinking water regulatory affairs, compliance, water quality control, treatment, and technical communications. She may be reached at (Back)

Read related articles by Nancy Pontius:
EPA's Whitman reaches out to top water-utility leaders

Status of future USEPA drinking water rules

EPA's Chuck Fox urges states to tackle drinking water challenges

EPA gives update on status of proposed drinking water rules

Marathon meeting yields agreement on Microbial/ Disinfection Byproducts Rules

USEPA lays its cards down in Reno concerning the Proposed Arsenic Rule

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