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The EPA and your drinking water

Decisions now being made at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could determine the future quality and purity of tap drinking water for roughly half the United States population. The EPA is putting together a series of policies that will substantially reduce the federal role in protection of underground water supplies and coastal waters threatened by pollution. One result of the new policies would be to make it easier for communities to dump waste materials, including chemicals and treated sewage, into the oceans. The agency is also reported to be expanding the number of offshore dumping sites.

The EPA - the very federal agency charged with policing the Clean Water Act - has a clear mandate to protect the nation's vital water supplies. There is a definite public safety factor in all this, since millions of homes in the US draw their drinking water from underground sources. It is one thing gradually to deregulate the federal authority over water - such as letting states play a role in defining water-quality standards. It is quite another thing, however, for the federal government to abdicate its responsibility in ensuring national standards. Yet that seems implicit in the new thrust of the EPA. EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch says that the agency's role should be one of supporting states in the water question rather than ''setting national standards.''

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Such an approach is dubious. The EPA has itself conceded the enormous difficulties facing many local jurisdictions in providing acceptable public sewage-treatment programs. City and state budgets are under severe strain because of the recession. That being the case, this would hardly seem the moment for the federal government to abandon its overseer and funding role in the crucial matter of clean water. Congress and citizen groups should take a hard look at the new EPA policy recommendations when they are announced. There must be no retreat on ensuring clean water supplies for all Americans.

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