SAFE DRINKING WATER AMENDMENTS
"Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink..."
Recent incidents such as the cryptosporidium that infected Milwaukee's water supply in the Spring of 1993 - considered the worst outbreak of waterborne disease in the nation's history, where nearly 400,000 people became ill and six died from an intestinal parasite that invaded the municipal water supply - have focused public attention on the need to protect the nation's drinking water.
Similar but less serious water problems have occurred in New York City, Washington, D.C., Des Moines, Iowa and in hundreds of communities around the country.
"The fragmented water-supply system also is seen as a problem," according to the Congressional Quarterly Researcher. "There are 200,000 public water systems in the U.S. today, a substantial percentage of which are 'basket cases' that cannot even meet the most basic microbiological standards, according to Erik D. Olson, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. There is an urgent need for these non-viable and small systems to consolidate with larger systems," the Researcher notes.
S1316:The Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments, signed into law, August, 1996.
U.S. tap water is teeming with contaminants, according to experts who believe new harmful substances invade the nation's drinking water nearly every day. The more worrisome contaminants include disease-causing microorganisms, lead, nitrates, arsenic and radon.
Even chlorine, the most widely used disinfectant in U.S. water- treatment systems, is now viewed as a potential hazard. Scientists have found that chlorine reacts with decaying organic matter in water to form hundreds of chemical byproducts, some of which have caused cancer in laboratory animals.
These concerns, along with a need to erase the public perception that the GOP wanted to roll back a generation of environmental progress, led congressional Republicans this session to push through revisions to the Safe Drinking Water Act, the landmark legislation approved by Gerald Ford in December, 1974. The Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments (S,1316) signed into law on August 6, 1996 by President Clinton contains provisions that have been nearly a century in the making, and are, indeed a watershed.
The new legislation is designed to give operators of the 185,000 water systems that fall under the Clean Water Act of October, 1972, more flexibility in solving problems. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency is instructed to publish a list of various technology and treatment techniques so that water authorities that cannot afford to use the best available technology, they can use the next best affordable technology.
The bill also sets up a $7.6 billion fund for grants and loans to help communities comply with federal drinking standards. Other key provisions include:
PUBLIC NOTIFICATION: Water systems would have to alert their customers about contaminants as they occur, and give details of the possible health risks those impurities impose.
ANNUAL REPORTS: By 1998, states that run their own programs must publish an annual report on violations of drinking water standards, and by July 1998, the EPA must publish the first annual report summarizing and evaluating the states' annual reports.
For Republicans in the 104th Congress, speedy passage of legislation protecting the nation's drinking water afforded the GOP a chance to reverse a perception that it was anti-environmental. (The attempt to restrict the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency in fiscal 1996, and moves to pass legislation that would require the federal government to reimburse property owners if environmental laws, such as those governing wetlands, diminished the value of their land by 50 percent, fueled this public perception.)
Speed was relative however. Though the legislation got a boost in November, 1995, when the Senate passed a major overhaul, the House took months for final passage - in large part due to the Republican leadership order to broker a wide bipartisan majority.
The final bill was ready by July 30, and since Republicans were eager to clear legislation before the August recess, Democrats won some key concessions - including a requirement that there be annual reports on contaminants. But all was not well. Because final negotiations moved too slowly to meet a July 31 deadline, a $725 million appropriation to help states with drinking water projects, reverted back to the EPA's wastewater fund. Although the GOP insists it can restore the appropriation in 1997, proposed recipients are afraid the money might slip slide away, and be earmarked elsewhere.
Democrats blamed Republicans for the lost appropriation, saying the GOP had not done its homework in time to finish the conference meetings.
The Republicans claim the lost appropriation is really the fault of conference committee members Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Dingell (D-MI), who they say delayed the final agreement.
Other partisan bickering also ensued. Bud Shuster (R-PA), head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, was lambasted for adding $50 million to the bill for projects in districts where Republicans face tough re-election campaigns. John Dingell went so far as to put a stuffed pig on his desk in the chamber - to emphasize the "pork," until he was told he was in violation of House rules.