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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Tapping the Consumer Pipeline to Fight Safer Water

The same lobbyists who fought the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 are at it again. This time the objective is to delay or to defeat the proposed standards by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit modestly the amount of cancer-causing chemicals in municipal drinking water systems.

Who are these opponents of safer drinking water? None other than the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and a group of private and public utilities operating under the grotesquely misnamed “Coalition for Safe Drinking Water.” The coalition is charging its consumers indirectly by assessing its member water companies 5 cents per capita to build a war chest for hiring Washington lawyers to further its ghoulish task.

In New Orleans, a city with above average contamination in its drinking water, two separate television polls revealed strong citizen support for removal of organic chemicals from the water. Yet the Sewage and Water Board is forcing its customers to pay to help defeat an EPA standard designed to achieve a result they strongly support.

At EPA hearings around the country during the past several months, the anti-cleaner water lobby was present with its propaganda about how unnecessary and costly the EPA healthstandards would be if adopted. The coalition trotted out their pseudo-experts–the band of so-called scientists who roam from one hearing to another defending the right of cancerous substances in the workplace, food and environment on the grounds that the risks are negligible.

One of the coalition’s witnesses at an EPA hearing in Washington was Francis Roe, a British “scientist.” He argued that chloroform–a common pollutant of many drinking water systems–actually might be good for humans. This was news to many leading cancer specialists who know chloroform to be a cancer-causing substance and to the FDA which took the substance out of cough medicines for the same reason.

Mr. Roe has testified on behalf of industry in other hearings involving the carcinogenic pesticides aldrin and dieldrin. In one of his presentations before the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, he suggested that cancer may be “one of Nature’s ways of destroying sexually effete individuals who would otherwise compete for limited food supplies with the sexually competent individuals on whom the perpetuation of the species depends.”

If Mr. Roe is a measure of the water works lobby’s desperation, the EPA standard is a measure of their gross breach of trust directed against the millions of innocent citizens who think they are being protected when they turn on their faucets.

For the EPA standards are so weak that anything less would come close to being a sham. The best thing that can be said about them is that they are a step in the right direction and that they officially recognize both the numerous studies linking disease with drinking water chemicals and the engineering remedy–granular activated carbon filtration–that is used widely in European systems.

Furthermore, the EPA-proposed regulations apply only to communities with populations greater than 75,000 people. This would mean that only 52 percent of the population would be covered by the proposal–a dubious interpretation of the 1974 act to begin with. The EPA’s leadership has not been up to the task of alerting the American people to the long-term damage to their health that comes with a leisurely tolerance of worsening drinking water pollution.

The phenomenal growth rate in the organic chemical and petrochemical industry since the early 1950s has taken its toll on the lakes, streams and rivers which supply the nation’s drinking water. Yet the antiquated technology relied upon to treat drinking water remains focused on bacteria control instead of including control of organics and heavy metals.

The water works lobby’s principal interest is to cover its bureaucratic flank. To recognize the need for cleanup may invite charges by an aroused public that the lobby has not been upholding its public trust in the past. So the lobby tries to shout the problem away by denying its existence.

Well it is up to the citizenry again to mobilize at the city and town level for public health action.

Interested readers should write to Douglas Costle, Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., and ask why the EPA is not more vigorously informing the public of what has to be done. Ask him for a kit of materials that will help you build a base for results in your community.