Safe Drinking Water: Will Congress Weaken the Law That Protects Your Health?
Protecting the safety of the nation's drinking water supplies is a high priority not only of the National Wildlife Federation but also of the American public. Currently, Congress is considering measures that would weaken federal rules designed to safeguard these water supplies. In the following article, writer Vicki Monks examines the issues in this debate, and explains why NWF and other groups are fighting to maintain strong drinking-water protections.
During a series of citizen interviews conducted on behalf of several environmental organizations last January, Washington, D.C., researcher Celinda Lake found that people all across the country are worried about contaminated water. Most participants supported tough, uniform national standards to protect their health. They also refused to believe that Congress would consider relaxing water-safety standards. In fact, those citizens in the face-to-face focus groups generally did not believe that anything in the new Republican majority's "Contract With America" might weaken the nation's environmental protections.
The point is worth considering as the National Wildlife Federation and other groups prepare to combat a renewed assault on the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which currently is due for reauthorization by Congress. While opponents of strong federal drinking-water protections push to eviscerate the act, the nation's water supplies continue to deteriorate.
Despite mandates requiring safe drinking water, millions of Americans are already consuming water supplies contaminated with high levels of microorganisms, herbicides and other pollutants. And, according to recent studies conducted by national health institutions, government and university scientists and environmental groups, a number of water contaminants may be capable of causing long-term health problems, ranging from increased risk of cancer to reproductive and immune system difficulties. These studies also suggest that the contaminant levels presently allowed by the EPA may not be strict enough to protect young children, pregnant women, the elderly and others who are especially vulnerable. Two years ago, for example, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that, because of their smaller size, children are exposed to proportionately more contaminants than adults, for whom EPA standards are designed.
Nevertheless, the new Congress is considering legislation that curtails several important provisions of the SDWA, and a formidable lobby representing cities, counties, states and water utilities is backing the effort. These groups are asking for relief from so-called "unfunded mandates" imposed by national drinking-water standards. The groups want more flexibility in monitoring for pollutants and in revising of risk-assessment procedures so that cost considerations are weighed against estimated benefits to human health.
That plan would have serious consequences for public health, says Elise Hoerath, an attorney in NWF's Environmental Quality Division. NWF is seeking legislation that would toughen drinking-water standards to protect children and other groups that are the most sensitive to the effects of toxic substances. The proposals NWF supports call for streamlined enforcement for water-quality violations, guarantees that communities will be informed when violations occur, and establishment of a billion-dollar state revolving-loan fund to help local water systems improve their safety. "We have to get the message across to Congress that Americans are willing to have their federal tax dollars spent to protect human health," says Hoerath.
Recent public-opinion polls substantiate that statement. A survey conducted for NWF last December by Peter D. Hart Research Associates found that 76 percent of Americans who voted in the last election want Congress to strengthen safe drinking-water laws (see page 34). Responses to a recent national survey by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) showed even more dramatic results. …