Energy & Environment

EPA, The Arsenic Dictator

Like many other cities and towns, Albuquerque may have to spend millions to remove arsenic from its water supply.
by | May 2002

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

Albuquerque has its share of urban problems--impoverished neighborhoods, congested traffic, polluted air, overloaded schools and teenage gangs. My children went to high school there, and they lost classmates and friends to drive-by shootings and drug deals that turned deadly. If the city suddenly came up with an extra $200 million or so to spend in the next 10 years, there are plenty of things local government could do to make the community a safer and healthier place to live.

Yet like many other cities and towns, Albuquerque may have to use its limited resources in another way. The federal government, prodded by the Natural Resources Defense Council, has decreed that Albuquerque should spend up to $150 million installing treatment systems to remove arsenic from drinking water supplies at 40 city wells, and maybe $5 million a year to operate them. Over the next 70 years, that might prevent 60 premature deaths from bladder and lung cancer in a city that's approaching 450,000 in population.

Calculating risks more conservatively, one Albuquerque study suggests that removing arsenic from the city's water supply might lengthen the lives of two elderly men by a few years over the next 75 years. Extending life is commendable, but if they had a choice, it's likely that Albuquerque's citizens would deal first with the more urgent dangers some of them face every day before worrying about arsenic in their water. But federal pollution-control laws make scientists' best guesses the final call in determining what contaminant levels are tolerable. As the arsenic debate shows, the laws don't give local officials the chance to decide they've got more consequential perils when they draw up budgets.

Of course, arsenic is dangerous stuff, and communities cannot simply ignore the potential threat. Albuquerque, El Paso, Tucson and roughly 4,000 smaller communities in the Southwest, Upper Midwest and New England states that take water from groundwater aquifers need to be concerned about it. Just before leaving office, the Clinton administration lowered EPA's arsenic limit to 10 parts per billion, effective in 2006, concluding that that step will prevent 56 cancer cases and perhaps 30 deaths a year. All told, EPA estimates that water utilities need to spend about $1 billion a year to install and operate arsenic-control technology, but the American Water Works Association figures it will cost several billion dollars annually.

Albuquerque officials predict they'll need to raise average household water rates 50 percent, to $45 a month, to meet the standard. State water-quality officials fear that some rural communities may be forced to shut water systems down because customers can't afford arsenic- removal costs. In New Mexico, small systems that don't treat their water at all now have to come up with $400 million to install treatment systems, then as much as $20 million a year to train and hire operators, maintain filters and dispose of residual sludge. EPA plans to distribute $20 million in the next two years to promote cost- effective treatment systems, and environmentalists seem to assume that Congress will provide grants to help small systems install them.

Last year, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman postponed the arsenic rule and commissioned the National Academy of Sciences and other experts to reassess how the agency interpreted cancer-risk data. Whitman last fall concluded that, if anything, the risks were worse than EPA had figured, and the review muted complaints by many cities about the costs. It still hasn't settled beyond any doubt that removing arsenic from drinking water should be a compelling national priority.

NRDC is suing to force EPA to lower the arsenic standard even more drastically, to 3 parts per billion. But New Mexico and other states still question whether the result really will be a measurable enhancement in public health. EPA and NAS based their conclusions largely on a Taiwanese study, but they discounted Utah research that detected no health effects from drinking water with arsenic levels five times the new standard. New Mexico engineers have calculated that trucks carrying chemicals to treatment systems scattered around Albuquerque will cut short more lives in traffic accidents than removing arsenic will lengthen. People have lived in Albuquerque for 300 years, and by EPA's logic "the city ought to just be rife with bladder cancer, but it's below the national average," says Steve Wust, a spokesman on arsenic regulation for the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators.

I drank Albuquerque city water for 25 years, so maybe I'm living with a minutely elevated chance of developing lung or bladder cancer. I also realize that no city is likely to charge $15 more per month on water bills to hire more police, fund programs to prevent drug abuse or finance traffic-safety improvements. But committing similar resources to those programs would save countless more lives than complying with EPA's standard. I can't speak for Albuquerque or any other place, but I'd say running the risk from arsenic would be worth it.


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