WASHINGTON -- Eight years after it voted to drastically tighten the purity standards for tap water, the Senate decided yesterday that it had overreached and voted 95-3 to loosen them again.
Whether the Senate's changes, made to the Safe Drinking Water Act, would actually increase the existing, tiny risks of drinking tap water was in some dispute.
Environmental groups called the vote a victory for the pesticide lobby and for financially strapped water companies.
The senators, in turn, argued that the current law was so draconian that no one had been able to meet all its dictates anyway, including the Environmental Protection Agency, which has the responsibility to enforce the law.
"In 1986, Congress passed amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act which overdid it, went too far," said the chief sponsor of the latest amendments, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. "We are trying to make the system work better than it would work under the 1986 amendments."
The Senate vote was welcomed in Maryland, where the growing costs of enforcing federal mandates prompted state officials last year to consider letting the EPA take over responsibility for regulating drinking water in state communities. State officials said they faced a $2 million shortfall in funds for overseeing municipal water systems.
The House was expected to take up its version of the water bill later this summer, and administration officials expressed the hope that it would produce a tougher measure.
Environmental groups would prefer the core of the current law. It requires the EPA to establish levels at which 83 specific pollutants posed absolutely no risk to human health, and to set safe levels for another 25 pollutants every three years.
The law then required utilities to reduce pollutant levels in tap water to as close to the no-risk levels as possible, using the best technology they could find.
The problem, the Senate concluded, is that many of the country's 200,000 water systems cannot afford such technology; all but 12,000of those systems serve fewer than 10,000 customers. Moreover, the environmental agency has not met deadlines for setting the no-risk levels on many pollutants.
Some other threats have not been addressed at all, including the protozoan cryptosporidium, which sickened 400,000 Milwaukee residents last year, killed at least 40 more and contributed to illnesses that officials say have killed scores more.
(A monthly test of the municipal water supply, serving more than 800,000 people in Milwaukee and its suburbs, turned up a trace of the protozoan Wednesday, the Associated Press quoted Paul W. Nannis, the city's health commissioner, as saying yesterday.)
And the list does not include what many experts believe is the single greatest health threat in water supplies: contaminants, some of them cancer-causing, that are left behind by the very chemicals that utilities use to make their water potable.
The Senate's tap-water bill addresses all those issues, but not always in ways that all sides like. The chief water regulator for the Environmental Protection Agency, Assistant Administrator Bob Perciasepe, said the legislation includes about 70 percent of the major changes that the administration is seeking.
Among scores of changes, the bill includes a $6.6 billion revolving loan fund -- $600 million of it in 1994 -- to help utilities buy the equipment needed to meet federal purity standards. The EPA says the total cost is about $8.5 billion; utilities say it is far greater.
The bill also allows small water systems to obtain waivers to allow them to filter pollutants with less costly and slightly less effective machinery than the state-of-the-art equipment that the law now requires.
The Senate bill should help Marylanders save money, especially in small communities, said Michael Sullivan, spokesman for the state Department of the Environment.
But Dru Schmitt-Perkins, Maryland director of Clean Water Action, said the measure gives state and local officials too much leeway in deciding what to test for and too much time in reducing their customers' exposure to harmful contaminants, such as lead.