Before we accuse the head of the Environmental Protection Agency of conspiring with the President of the United States to poison Americans, let's hop into the Wayback machine and travel back to the dying days of the Clinton presidency.
"WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency ordered Wednesday that allowable levels of arsenic in drinking water be reduced by 80 percent. The action updating an arsenic standard that has been in effect for nearly 60 years is expected to require about 3,000 communities -- generally small water systems -- to make changes in treatment of drinking water, the agency said. "This new drinking water standard will provide additional public health protection for 13 million Americans," President Clinton said in a statement." (AP)

I could focus on why President Clinton allowed this "dangerous" arsenic level to stand for 8 years before deciding to take action (no matter what happens, the Bush arsenic levels are going to be lower than the Clinton levels), but instead just take a look at the words the Clinton administration's EPA released to the press. The new restrictions are going to affect the small water systems of small communities. So make sure your mind is in "rural economy" mode here; this won't be changing the standards in New York City or other cities, where the water is already so heavily treated that it becomes the sparkling, crystal-clear, pristine, life-giving tap water that all you metropolitan types are used to. Hey, stop laughing!

In developed countries, arsenic is not a substance that is intentionally belched into the air by smokestacks or dumped into lakes by giant pipelines, at least in any astonishing amount. The majority of arsenic in the groundwater of rural communities is naturally occurring. [You may either look that up yourself or take my word for it; I'm not going cite every declarative sentence I use. The media sure doesn't.] The most significant economic benefit of allowing higher arsenic levels is not for polluters (read: miners) putting arsenic in the water, but rather water companies who must otherwise remove arsenic from the water. Water treatment is extremely expensive, especially when you're trying to get the amount of a certain chemical down to below ten parts per billion.

Should we make water as safe as possible? It sounds like a simple question with a simple answer; of course we should. It wouldn't be moral to sell water that is known to kill one of every 50 million people drinking it, would it? Though there is still no conclusive evidence, it wouldn't be outlandish to assume that any amount of arsenic in water will make some people sick (incidentally, this is the position of Physicians for Social Responsibility). So why then is the government not demanding that all arsenic be removed from water? Economists already know the reason: the costs outweigh the benefits. It's the same reason the nationwide speed limit isn't 5 miles an hour. It would save lives, but at what price? Would the poorest families be able to afford this zero-arsenic water? Would everyone just give up and dig wells (poisoning their families!) instead of paying $1000 a month for water? So some arsenic needs to be in the water. I say that not because I want to poison children, but because the costs of being overly restrictive outweigh the benefits. So the dilemma is left to science and government to decide what amount of arsenic is acceptable. Put another way (and whisper this because it's not politically correct), how many lost lives are acceptable? This is the $8.1 million VT hawkeye talks about above.

According to US Water News, the cost of the unimplemted Clinton standard would be $14 billion in capital investments and $1.5 billion in annual operating costs. This is where the "rural economy" aspect becomes important. For example, the small Falls Water Company, in suburban Idaho Falls, currently has no arsenic treatment plant, because its arsenic numbers comply with the current regulations. Under the Clinton rule, they would be forced to build one, meaning their customers would see bill "increases of between $279 and $643 a year". Ouch. The National Rural Water Association understandably freaked out:

"The Jan. 22 rule would have had adverse impacts on many rural and small water systems. The rule primarily affects small communities, it is misleading to imply big business is the beneficiary of EPA's withdrawal. The fact is that EPA's arsenic rule would require nearly 3,400 communities to comply. These communities are governed and operated by people whose families drink the water every day, who are locally elected by their community. Most all of these communities are small, less than 3,300 in population, with very limited economies of scale and ability to afford compliance or lobby against the rule.

Many small communities would be forced into very expensive treatment -- when their water presents no public health threat. No one in the public health or scientific community is advocating that very low concentrations of arsenic in drinking water (i.e. 11 parts per billion) are unsafe compare to the Jan. 22 rule's level of 10ppb. Yet, all the towns just above the uniform standard would be forced into costly treatment. Should this town be mandated to double water rates to reduce arsenic concentrations by less than 1 part per billion? In poor rural communities the high-end cost of this rule ranges from EPA's estimated increase in monthly water bill of $30/month -- to state engineers' estimated increase as high as $200/month."

A small point about that study by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences... would you be surprised if I told you that it doesn't exist? The recommendation to reduce the arsenic standard instead came from the National Research Council's Subcommittee on Arsenic in Drinking Water. While the NAS is indeed made up of renowned and accomplished scientists, the NRC, while affiliated with the political arm of the NAS, is made up of folks a lot lower on the scientific knowledge totem pole. No one on the arsenic subcommittee was a member of the NAS, and the committee's chairman had never even published a study on arsenic! I know most of you aren't familiar with the world of science, but a NRC recommendation is worth considerably less than a NAS one. Interestingly enough, the EPA's own 1997 study showed no link between drinking water arsenic and cancer.

Perhaps the tremendous cost to rural communities, combined with the ambiguity of the science, is the real reason the Bush administration is reviewing the last-minute Clinton regulation which VT hawkeye eloquently called a political landmine. And if Bush secretly wants to poison children for the benefit his contributors, he's doing a shitty job. The standards will still be stricter than under Clinton.

And someone tell Sen. Daschle to check out his own voting record next time before he accuses the president of killing kids. He had to go into hiding for the better part of a week when that little story ( broke.

Incidentally, I once did lighting for a production of Arsenic and Old Lace (a great play), and I still don't get the title of this node. Wouldn't "Old Bush" be George Bush, Sr.?