WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to require the Environmental Protection Agency to put into effect immediately a new, stricter standard for arsenic in drinking water, and direct local water systems to tell their customers how much of the toxic substance is flowing from their taps.
The directive, approved 97-1 as an amendment to a funding bill, was milder than an amendment passed by the House last week. The House measure ordered EPA to reduce the allowable level of arsenic in drinking water by 80 percent.
"I hope we will send a rip-roaring message to the president: Set the standard. Set it low. Set it fast," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chief sponsor of the measure, which was included in the appropriation for the Veterans Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development and the EPA.
The current standard for arsenic in drinking water is 50 parts per billion. The Clinton administration, during its waning days, set a new standard of 10 parts per billion that was to take effect in March.
But the Bush administration's new EPA administrator, Christie Whitman, rescinded the new standard pending an agency review of its cost and effect on health.
Environmentalists applauded the Senate vote, even though the amendment would leave it up to Whitman to determine the appropriate standard. The House measure would require her to reinstate the Clinton administration standard of 10 parts per billion.
"It sends a very important signal that the Congress won't tolerate weakening or delaying public health provisions," said Alyssondra Campaigne, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.
Democratic Senate staffers said that the amendment did not specify the 10 parts per billion standard because its sponsors feared it might not receive enough votes to pass in that form. It will be up to House and Senate conferees to reconcile the two versions of the arsenic mandate.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the president believes Whitman is pursuing the "responsible approach" with her review, but will work with Congress to ensure an outcome that is "based on sound science." It is too early, she said, to tell whether President Bush would veto the funding bill if it contains an arsenic directive.
The new administration has been harshly criticized by environmentalists and Democrats in Congress for delaying action on arsenic. Even Republican allies have acknowledged that the administration made a public relations blunder when it abruptly rescinded the Clinton administration standard.
Republicans said the Senate vote was not the kind of unconditional rebuke to the administration that the House measure appears to be.
"This agreement keeps hope alive that new arsenic standards will be based on sound science, and it puts pressure on the EPA to act soon to set that standard," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., after the vote.
A study by the National Academy of Sciences found that exposure to arsenic in drinking water causes lung, bladder and skin cancer, and recommended reducing the standard.
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