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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Politicians United on Clean Drinking Water

Air Date: Week of

Renewal of the Clean Water Act recently swept through the House and the Senate. Could safe drinking water be a safe political move in this election year? Steve Curwood talks with Alan Freedman of Congressional Quarterly about the new legislation and how it may impact business and communities.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Superfund. The Endangered Species Act. The Clean Water Act. All of these major Federal environmental protection laws and more are past due for renewal, and none have been acted upon by the current Congress. But with elections looming and pressure mounting on the Republican majority to improve its environmental image, one major environmental law has recently swept through both the House and the Senate. The Safe Drinking Water Act tells municipal water systems and other suppliers what contaminants and how much of them may be in our water. And the revisions now being hammered out would radically alter how the Environmental Protection Agency measures water quality. The new law would for the first time give the EPA the flexibility to regulate pollutants on the basis of relative risk. It would also require the EPA to measure the amount of radon in drinking water. And, as Alan Freedman of Congressional Quarterly tells us, it would require the Agency to screen for hormone-disrupting chemicals.

FREEDMAN: It would direct EPA to go out and identify those chemicals found in the environment that get into our bodies and mimic the hormone estrogen. These estrogen-mimickers, byproducts of DDT, for example, are linked to infertility rates as well as cancer rates. The importance of this is that once these estrogen-mimickers are identified the environmentalists contend that there will be kind of a greater understanding between what is actually in drinking water and the possible health effects.

CURWOOD: This bill marks a departure, doesn't it, from setting particular substances and rates of exposure to substances and giving the EPA a lot more latitude?

FREEDMAN: Yeah, that's right. Actually, the current drinking water law basically says to EPA, you shall come up with 25 new contaminants every 3 years. In other words you have to go out and you have to find things in the water that are dangerous and go out and regulate that. That stemmed from the 1980's when the Democrats passed the law, mainly because they felt the EPA wasn't enforcing the law, and they wanted to prescribe to EPA how it should enforce environmental laws. But as a practical matter, EPA simply couldn't keep up with that schedule. So what this law would do is it would essentially put in a place a much more flexible standard setting process, where EPA would go out and identify possible chemicals that could be dangerous, and once they have that list they could pick a few every couple years to regulate. It would be much less prescriptive in that sense.

CURWOOD: There's a new provision in this bill about giving the public more of a right to know.

FREEDMAN: Well this is an interesting provision. It would require your local water system to give you a listing of the contaminants in your water, or the chemicals, the substances that are in your water. If for example the substance were to exceed a standard, they would then have to describe to you in fairly straightforward English what the health effects of that particular chemical is. This is considered to be a good thing by many of the water systems around the country, because they feel it actually builds trust between themselves and the community. I've talked to a lobbyist for the water system who said that this is good for public relations. I should say that not everybody likes this. There's a fear that this will be sort of an unfunded mandate, that this is going to create kind of an onerous prescription on individual water systems. At House Committee Markup, one of the conservative Republicans on the committee, for example, said that there would be panic in the streets. So far there's really not much evidence that similar right to know language for example in California has caused that kind of panic. But that is mainly the criticism against this provision. That the public simply is not ready or capable of sort of taking in this information, because they don't have the background or something along those lines to sort of take it in.

CURWOOD: Do the environmental activists like this provision? Are they comfortable with this?

FREEDMAN: In the best of worlds they would like there to be a more prescriptive language. But I think what the environmentalists are doing is they're making a holistic judgment about this bill. They're looking at the bill in totality, and on balance they like what they see. Ill give you one big example of that. This bill will authorize $7.6 billion through the year 2003 for infrastructure improvements for your local drinking water systems. The environmentalists consider this a real step forward because its real money going out into the country and actually going towards improving the quality of drinking water. And that's going to make -- you know, the perception is that that's going to make drinking water safe for everybody, and that's a positive thing.

CURWOOD: Now why has this measure received such overwhelming bipartisan support? Ninety-nine to zip on the Senate side, the House overwhelmingly in favor. What's going on here?

FREEDMAN: The Republicans have two problems. One, they don't have a lot of environmental legislation to their credit. And two, they don't have a lot of legislation, period, to their credit. So this is just a big, big bill for them. That has really sort of forced them to the table with their Democratic counterparts and really put a lot of pressure on them to get a deal on drinking water. In turn the Democrats who don't need this bill in a political sense as much as the Republicans have really held out for provisions like right to know, for example, that they think of as important. Unlike a lot of other environmental bills this year like the Superfund bill, for example, you don't see the kind of heavy industry lobbying that you see in other bills. This is a bill that primarily affects public water systems. So you have none of the factors that have really taken down other environment, major environmental bills.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Alan Freedman covers environmental issues for Congressional Quarterly. Thank you, sir.

FREEDMAN: Thank you.



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