SDWA compromise heads to House
Since the U.S. Congress last considered changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act in May 1994, there have been a dozen cases of water contamination, including a deadly Cryptosporidium outbreak in Las Vegas, Nev. Half a million people have reported sicknesses as a result of drinking contaminated tap water since then, and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control estimates that 25 times that number may actually have become ill.
But, in October 1995, the Senate Environment Committee unanimously passed a bill that amends the act.
That bill earned the support of the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties.
"The two most important revisions . . . are those-dealing with the process by which new contaminants are selected and the process by which regulatory limits on the presence of contaminants are set," says Jeff Wennberg, mayor of Rutland, Vermont. Wennberg, who is authorized to speak for the two local government associations, says that such changes are needed because the safe drinking water laws are inadequate and represent vintage command-and-control politics.
When the Republicans wrested control of Congress in 1994, the Clinton Administration and environmentalists sounded alarm bells that American business would be given free reign to run roughshod over the environment and that those laws would be gutted.
But, as far as safe drinking laws go, the new leadership could not give state and local officials the reprieve they wanted from cumbersome and costly rules.
Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho) forged a consensus among the competing interests, giving business and cities the regulatory reform they wanted in the form of cost-benefit analysis–while appeasing environmentalists by allocating more funds to the states to ensure the safety of drinking water supplies.
Kempthorne says his compromise will allow "states, cities and counties to spend their money on the most pressing health needs of their communities instead of worrying about high-cost, low-benefit federal requirements."
The bill would:
* allow EPA to prioritize risks;
* provide flexibility for states to tailor federal requirements;
* favor a compliance-oriented enforcement strategy;
* provide $1 billion annually to improve drinking water; and
* help small water systems provide safe and affordable drinking water.
But, while the administration and environmentalists call the Senate bill an acceptable framework from which to work, they still are calling for stronger language.
A major concern is that the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue standards could be undercut because the agency must first complete a cost-benefit analysis for every regulation, something the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) calls "wasteful."
NRDC attorney Eric Olsen argues the bill should be changed so that those analyses could be waived during emergencies and when proven scientific results demand that kind of action.
Still, the unanimous vote in the Senate Environment Committee bodes well for the bill's passage on the floor there. However, the measure also must be approved by the House, which currently is not considering any drinking water legislation of its own. State and local leaders say they'll press House leaders to adopt the Senate's language, something that may not be easy given that chamber's present conservative sway.