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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Safe Drinking Water

The safe drinking water bill is in trouble. Buffeted by the combined efforts of that stolid fraternity — the oil industry and the White House — the bill, H. R. 13002, has moved with glacial slowness through the House Commerce Committee. The Senate has already passed similar legislation.

At every opportunity its opponents have hacked away at the House bill’s provisions which are designed to set federal minimum drinking water standards, primarily enforced by the states, to combat serious levels of contamination found throughout the United States.

During the four years that this legislation has been awaiting the decision of Congress, more evidence has come forth supporting the 1969 National Drinking Water Survey conducted by the United States Public Health Service. That survey reported that water in 36 percent of the communities sampled did not meet the very incomplete Public Health Service standards, and that most water systems were infrequentlyinspected by health authorities.

Inadequate water treatment systems and the use of water from polluted sources such as Lake Erie or the Mississippi River have led to drinking water with unsafe levels of cadmium, asbestos, viruses, industrial chemicals, nitrates, mercury and many other pollutants.

Special tests of tap water in many U.S. cities have turned up pollutants associated with cancer, birth defects, heart and lung disease, nervous system damage and many other ailments. But these tests are not widespread and regular.

Because existing standards do not cover so many of the dangerous substances known to be in water supplies, no testing is required for these contaminants. Consequently, consumers have no knowledge of what is in their water from the tap or in their beverages and foodstuffs.

The focus on pollution of our nation’s waterways is only beginning to shift to drinking water. Four years ago, I believed that low investment in research and water purification facilities would someday make drinking water hazards a major community issue. The time is not far off.Cancer-causing compounds have been identified in tap water from several cities including Evansville, Indiana, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

Last October, Dr. Robert Jolley of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories estimated that over one thousand tons of chlorinated organic compounds are discharged annually into the nation’s waterways as a result of the use of chlorine to disinfect sewage. Not only are these kinds of compounds often toxic to fish, but many have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

If chlorination of sewage can produce such toxic compounds, can chlorine added to disinfect drinking water react with organic pollutants to produce similar toxic combinations? Two independent studies, one in the Netherlands and the other, an unpublished Environmental Protection Agency report, suggest that this may be happening in Cincinnati and New Orleans.

In an October 8th address, Russell W. Peterson, the White House environmental advisor, said: “Many cities and towns in the United States draw their drinking water from polluted lakes, streams and rivers. Is our water safe todrink? Is our drinking water responsible for our cancer outbreak? We really don’t know, but the statistics suggest that we have only scratched the surface of the relation between pollution and the public health.”

Unfortunately, Peterson can’t do much about Budget Director Roy Ash and other White House lobbyists against even a mild drinking water health bill. Nor can he do much about the oil industry that is fighting a provision to safeguard against the contamination of underground water by underground waste injections.

Just before Congress recessed in mid-October, the bill was supposed to reach the House floor for a vote. Opponents of the bill’s enforcement provisions had backed off because of the upcoming elections and the difficulty of explaining their resistance to the voters. But it never came to a vote, and was put off until the Congress returns after the elections for the final month of the session.

This was the Roy Ash and oil companies strategy. Congressman Thomas O’Neill (D-Mass.) and House Speaker CarlAlbert (D-Okla.) will be the key factors in whether H.R.
13002 is enacted without severe weakening. Citizens should ask every member of the House of Representatives where they stand on this important health legislation before they return to Washington.

Safeguarding drinking water is not difficult. It requires a modest public investment in modern testing and treatment equipment and the will to enforce comprehensive standards and public notification of drinking water quality at the local community level.