SDWA may fall victim to political ebbs and flows
This year President Clinton will try to step up regulation of the nation’s drinking water despite a probable tsunami of opposition from the new Republican-controlled Congress.
Acutely aware that the nation’s drinking water supply is not as safe as it should be, the Administration is trying to pull together disparate parties to put more teeth in the Safe Drinking Water Act. Separate bills were passed during the last Congress, but time ran out before they could be reconciled.
Nearly two years ago, Milwaukee, Wis., and Washington, D.C., got first-hand accounts of the dangers of unsafe drinking water. Bacteria tied to the cattle grazing on upstream farms infested Milwaukee’s water supply, resulting in 30 deaths and 300,000 illnesses, and torrential rains in Washington caused sewer backups that left the city’s drinking water cloudy for three days.
Nearly 20 years ago, the Surgeon General’s office advised lawmakers to legislate upgrades in water treatment and distribution facilities. The call resulted in passage of the SDWA. Still, in 1978, the Surgeon General noted that six million people were drinking substandard water.
The act was rewritten and presumably strengthened in 1986.
Despite these efforts, however, in 1987 the National Council on Public Works said water from many small systems was potentially hazardous to local populations. And, as events in Milwaukee and Washington illustrate, problems persist.
The biggest of those problems is that Congress has not appropriated the funds necessary for the act’s implementation, and most local governments simply do not have the money to comply. “Unfortunately, public water systems are suffering from lack of resources, and many have noted that they can no longer fund collective parts of environmental statutes,” says Rick Mallory, manager of the drinking water program for Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare.
The bill favored by the Administration called for:
* more flexibility in contaminant regulation. Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is called upon to regulate an additional 25 contaminants every three years. The new language allows EPA to consider any number of contaminants and decide on the most appropriate response for each.
* establishment of a state revolving loan fund that would grow from $600 million to $1 billion over three years to help communities and water suppliers finance needed infrastructure,
* the streamlining of enforcement by consolidation of multiple enforcement programs and
* a requirement that states set up training and certification programs for all drinking water system operators .
According to an EPA water official, the administration will unveil a safe drinking water bill in the 104th Congress “closely resembling” the one introduced in the 103rd Congress.
That will please neither state and local governments nor environmentalists. Local government officials welcome the federal money that would be available for implementation of the act but maintain that its benefits do not justify its costs.
“It is time to admit that we do not always need and cannot always afford to drive drinking water standards to the ultimate degree of achievable protection at exorbitant costs,” says Lewis Shaw, deputy commissioner for South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control.
On the other hand, environmentalists argue that the administration’s plan would create second-class water systems. “Attempts to deregulate will not cure our water ills,” says Velma Smith, director of the drinking water project for Friends of the Earth in Washington. “They will only aggravate the root causes.”
Despite both sides’ desires for action, nothing is likely to happen within the next few months, if at all. Republicans now control the ebb and flow of legislation introduced in Congress, and environmental concerns are not high on their list of priorities. Sen. Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) says diverting resources to comply with the bill would unnecessarily inhibit growth. That thinking pleases the business community but may backfire by re-energizing liberal constituencies.
“Because we expect a Congress more hostile to the environmental agenda, we’re prepared to diversify our tactics to achieve the fundamental reforms that poll after poll shows Americans support,” says Erik Olson an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. “The battle is on.”