Watered-Down Rules Defy Common Sense

Protecting public water supplies by removing dangerous

pollutants sounds like common sense to most people. No doubt that is why, after

George W. Bush rescinded a Clinton regulation mandating lower levels of arsenic

in drinking water, opinion polls showed a spike of citizen outrage and prompted

a promise of “further study” by his abject environmental administrator,

Christine Todd Whitman.

The results of her studies, of course, will depend quite

heavily on who does the studying. When Mr. Bush announced his original foolish

decision to nullify the arsenic cleanup, he dishonestly implied that his

predecessor had imposed a hasty, “last-minute” decision that wasn’t based on

“sound science.” Never mind that the Clinton regulation was the result of one

of the longest, most exhaustive research efforts in the history of the

Environmental Protection Agency, beginning almost two decades ago. In Mr.

Bush’s parlance, “sound science” means anything that will please the lobbyists

and contributors from the mining and water industries.

Despite Ms. Whitman’s earnest pledges, the pressure from corporate

interests may well prevail over public health in the long run. Reducing the

permissible level of arsenic in public reservoirs from 50 parts per billion to

10 parts per billion, as the Clinton regulation would have mandated, will be

expensive to those same interests. Once public attention is successfully

diverted from the issue, the lobbyists will remain hard at work.

Even before the White House flip-flop, various voices could

be heard arguing that the benefits of reducing arsenic in the reservoirs wouldn’t

be worth the cost. A Wall Street Journal

editorialist pointed out that arsenic is a “naturally occurring” substance and

thus nothing to be too worried about. A Slate

columnist cited a think-tank report as proof that Mr. Bush had made a “heroic

and correct” decision by voiding the Clinton regulation. The tiny number of

lives saved would simply not be worth the enormous amount of money involved, he

wrote.

It may not be necessary to mention that such happy talk

emanates from well-to-do journalists whose bottled water is unlikely to contain

any taint of arsenic. It is necessary to point out that they are all wet.

The facts were detailed with damning effect on the front

page of The Wall Street Journal (not

exactly an organ of Greenpeace) on April 19. According to numerous studies

cited in the Journal article, arsenic

is a known human carcinogen, whether from man-made or natural sources, at

levels not much higher than 50 ppb. In countries like Taiwan and Chile, where

the problem has been carefully reviewed by epidemiologists, arsenic

contamination has been shown to cause cancer of the lung, kidney and bladder. A

prominent scientific expert told The Journal that “at the level of 50 parts

per billion, arsenic is killing a lot of people in Chile.”

But the truly troubling news revealed by reporter Peter

Waldman was the ongoing effort by American corporations and their hired

academics to suppress the truth about arsenic’s dangers. The Chilean scientist

quoted above said that he had been approached by representatives of ARCO, which

owned a huge copper mine in Montana. In 1996 the Americans wined and dined him

at a fancy Santiago hotel and, as he recalled, “They showed a lot of interest

in my work …. Then, in the middle of dinner, they offered me money to do research

for them. They said they had a lot of money and could create a center here to

do research to show the E.P.A. that the impact of arsenic is not as high as was

claimed. They were clearly saying they’d pay me for results that helped them.”

The ARCO representatives

said they didn’t recall making any such offer. But a Harvard scientist who

undertook a study of arsenic’s effects for ARCO says that when his results

prompted him to urge an immediate reduction of the carcinogen’s levels to 20

parts per billion, the company shut down his project and tried to suppress his

findings.

Opponents of strict industrial regulation frequently

complain about “junk science” causing environmental hysteria. What the Journal story shows is that the chief

instigators of “junk science” are corporate leaders who seek to frustrate the

public interest.

So far, the Bush administration’s attitude toward scientific

integrity seems sufficiently elastic to please its biggest campaign

contributors. Last month Mr. Bush appointed as his new “regulation czar” a

Harvard professor named John Graham, who has earned a reputation for crusading

against fundamental health, safety and environmental regulations from his

academic perch. Although he advertises himself as a scientist, Mr. Graham is in

reality a “risk-analysis” expert with no degrees in hard science. His Harvard

Center for Risk Analysis is financed by scores of corporations and trade

associations, notably including the lobbying outfits sponsored by the

petroleum, chemical, automobile and food industries.

This is the man who will have the final word on Ms.

Whitman’s “further studies” of arsenic. It seems safe to predict that her

humiliations have only just begun.