WASHINGTON -- Critics are calling the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to cut the lead content in Americans' drinking water a disappointment because water suppliers would have years to comply fully.
"A 21-year-old timetable for reducing the level of lead in drinking water is too long for too many children who will be poisoned while we take our time," said Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J.
Lead poisoning is viewed as one of the most serious environmental threats to children.
The EPA rules, which would be phased in beginning Jan. 1, will require the nation's 79,000 residential water suppliers to monitor lead content at household taps across the country and take steps to reduce concentrations of lead.
Deputy EPA Administrator Henry Habicht said the overall result of the new program, when fully implemented, will be to provide 10 times more protection against lead than present regulations.
But environmentalists and members of Congress blasted the long-awaited regulations. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and the environment, accused the environmental agency of "gross incompetence" and called for EPA Administrator William K. Reilly to appear before the panel Friday.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote Reilly that his Environment and Public Works subcommittee would also "examine the folly."
EPA officials said significant reductions in lead exposure through drinking water should come within the next six years as a result of the the new program. Ninety-five percent of the problem, they said, can be eliminated by the treatment of water with safe agents to reduce corrosion. Some communities have used baking soda to do that.
But critics maintained that dangerous amounts of lead could remain for more than two decades in the water delivered by some systems.
"Buried in the hoopla over EPA's new rule," Waxman said, "is the sad fact that the agency's long-awaited rule-making on lead is a tragic disappointment. . . . We are going to have to pass legislation to set in place a standard that will protect the health of children."