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Congress: clean up America's water

CONGRESS should renew and update existing federal water laws to ensure that the nation's present water supplies are free of serious contamination. To that end, the federal role in protecting drinking water needs to be zealously guarded -- and strengthened. Fortunately, legislative measures to reform the regulatory procedures of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are now moving through the House and Senate. In 1985 the problem of protecting drinking water supplies from chemical contaminants is not so much within Congress as it is within the bureaucracy of the EPA and the antiregulatory attitude of the Reagan administration's Office of Management and Budget.

The most serious issue facing Congress is to find the means to wake the EPA from its Rip Van Winkle-like state and prod the agency into effective standard setting and regulation as a substitute for inaction and a shameful record of intransigence.

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In 1974 Congress enacted the Safe Drinking Water Act and handed the EPA virtually unlimited implied discretionary powers -- a well-intentioned mandate -- to protect drinking water supplies from chemical contamination. At the start of the second decade following passage of the 1974 law, the mandate is unfulfilled, a victim of an awkward, slow-footed, and inefficient regulatory process.

Only 22 interim federal drinking water standards for specific contaminants have been set by the EPA out of some 200 chemical contaminants -- natural and synthetic -- discovered in our drinking water supplies. Most of the 22 interim standards date back to 1963 recommendations of the US Public Health Service.

These 22 interim standards are inadequate and too narrowly focused, according to a study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a nonpartisan agency. OTA said the potential effects of chemical contamination of US drinking water supplies ``are significant and warrant national attention.''

What is shocking and disturbing is that not a single federal standard or regulation has been established for the 14 most hazardous and most commonly found chemical contaminants in the drinking-water supplies. EPA, for example, has yet to fashion standards or regulations for benzene and vinyl chloride.

Measuring absolute risks to the health and welfare of persons is, of course, technically difficult and uncertain. But there is ample research and evidence to suggest that certain chemical contaminants present health hazards.

Clearly, it's time for Congress to put the EPA on specific notice to set standards and regulations for the 14 most hazardous and most commonly found chemical contaminants in our drinking water supplies. Congress, 11 years after enactment of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, has an obligation to list not only the 14, but at least 53 other chemical contaminants thought to be hazardous to the health and welfare of human beings.

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1985 departs from the past practice of extending implied discretionary powers to the EPA. The bill gives the agency explicit instructions on what to establish standards for and when. The EPA can no longer be relied upon or trusted to act on its own and establish effective standards and regulations. The new law proposes to streamline the regulatory process with necessary reforms that also require more frequent monitoring and testing of our drinking water supplies.

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At the very least the 1985 act holds out the promise of closing the wide gap between the noble intent of Congress, first enunciated 11 years ago, and the EPA's ignoble performance in protecting drinking-water supplies. The new law does not engage in any regulatory mischiefmaking. Neither does it impose rigid requirements on the agency, as some EPA officials maintain. Instead of rigidity the new law's provisions offer an opportunity to shed the regulatory process of its slowness and inefficiencies and accomplish what Congress intended in 1974. It's not too late. Not yet, but the clock is ticking!

US Rep. Dennis E. Eckart (D) of Ohio is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is considering reform of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. He is principal author of a new safe drinking water bill.

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