Let communities decide how much arsenic to drink

September 10, 2001|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- San Ysidro, N.M., is a rural hamlet of just a couple of hundred people, at the edge of the Jemez Mountains about 40 miles northwest of Albuquerque. It has what sounds like a nightmarish problem: arsenic in its drinking water.

Now, people in San Ysidro are no fonder than anyone else of ingesting hazardous substances. They've spent large sums of money to reduce the amount of arsenic they encounter, going so far as to install individual filters in every home. Even with this treatment, which has pushed individual water bills to a minimum of $44 per month, the water still has small amounts of arsenic.

There is nothing to stop the locals from electing to pay even more to make their water cleaner still. Unfortunately, it would be hugely expensive, and it's not at all certain that it would increase their life expectancy, improve their health or brighten their smiles. The people of San Ysidro have decided that arsenic is not their biggest concern.

But never mind what they want. If the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental lobby groups have their way, this town, and thousands of others, will have to go to far greater lengths to solve a problem that doesn't strike residents as especially urgent.

President Bush got into political trouble earlier this year by rolling back an EPA rule, issued in the final days of the Clinton administration, that would have drastically reduced the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water -- though the administration promises some tightening of the standard. Critics accused him of jeopardizing public health, ignoring scientific evidence, caving in to polluters and selling his soul to the devil.

What no one bothered to ask is: Why should Washington tell individual communities they must devote their resources to getting rid of arsenic instead of addressing more important problems?

Opponents of the stricter standard have plenty of science on their side. A study by the National Academy of Sciences, which recommended setting a lower limit, admitted that a change might not improve public health.

A report by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies found that the expense would vastly exceed the potential benefit. It also reached the startling conclusion that the regulation might kill more people than it would save.

"The costs of complying with the rule," the report says, "reduce the amount of private resources that people have to spend on a wide range of activities, including health care, children's education and automobile safety. When people have fewer resources, they spend less to reduce risks."

In San Ysidro, this is not just a theoretical possibility. The town has a devil of a time just meeting the existing standard of 50 parts per billion. As for the 10 ppb limit proposed by the EPA, civil engineer Richard Burton, a consultant to the town on water issues, says flatly, "There is no currently available way to get down to that standard."

Its residents already pay nearly twice what most other people in New Mexico pay for water. If the rule were imposed, Mr. Burton says, small water systems would simply close down, leaving residents to fend for themselves. Some people would drill their own wells to obtain water -- which, unlike the water they currently get, would not undergo any treatment to remove arsenic. "Everybody will get more arsenic," says Mr. Burton. Others will resort to buying bottled water in large quantities.

Either of these options would leave locals worse off. How do we know that? Because they already have those options, and they've chosen to get their water from the village water system.

It's not just San Ysidro's problem. A study in the scholarly journal New Mexico Geology estimated that under the tighter standard, New Mexico residents served by small water systems with arsenic problems would see their water bills jump by $90 a month. A typical family would end up spending 2 percent of its entire income on water.

Maybe this would be a wise investment, but I doubt it. And my opinion, or the Sierra Club's, shouldn't matter anyway. It's a question that people in San Ysidro and every other small town in the country can decide on their own.

If a town in New Mexico spews out pollution that ends up in Texas, Washington ought to stop it. But if the people of the town choose not to entirely eliminate a pollutant that they are fully aware of and affects only them, that's their business. When it comes to arsenic in the drinking water of San Ysidro, what the federal government should do is simple: nothing.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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