Standards for Arsenic Levels

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One of the more common statements I see in the anti-Bush propaganda around campus is that he wants to poison our drinking water by increasing the levels of arsenic in the system. Now all he was really interested in was figuring out what level of arsenic is dangerous and setting the federal standards there. Even if he were mistaken on the facts, it doesn't amount to a desire to poison people. Still, more reasonable environmentalists who don't think he's trying to poison people will insist that he doesn't care if people are poisoned.

From what I'd read about this issue before, I knew that Clinton had increased the standard so that a lower amount of arsenic was being counted as dangerous than had previously been the case. I thought the issue was simply over whether that was a safe level and that some industries were polluting at levels in between the Clinton standard and the previous standard, and environmentalists wanted to stop that. It turns out that safe levels are only part of the issue, and pollution from industry isn't even involved. Stuart Buck flags a Washington Post writer's explanation of that as a key difference between red-staters and blue-staters.

The primary issue is whether the natural levels of arsenic in drinking water in many rural locations, not at all water polluted by industry, are safe and whether new water purification facilities need to be built at great expense in impoverished rural areas due to the preferences of rich environmentalists in big cities who feel uncomfortable about reducing even unreasonable environmental regulations, since that's backward by definition in their dictionaries. So it's not even that liberal policy on this issue is irrelevant and unnecessary. It's that it may well be harmful. It's because of things like this that I never believe anything I read from the major environmentalist organizations. The issues are always far more complicated than they admit, at best.

6 Comments

This is just another unfunded mandate. I don't believe the folks in the Washington Post want to drink 'natural' arsenic but that the purification system and recycle costs were greater than the perceived threat.

This law was in response to the movies like "A Civil Action" and "Erin Brockovich".

    Now all [Bush] was really interested in was figuring out what level of arsenic is dangerous and setting the federal standards there.

    It's because of things like this that I never believe anything I read from the major environmentalist organizations. The issues are always far more complicated than they admit, at best.

Now I wonder: how did you divine what Bush's intentions were?

Depending on your source, I might further wonder whether it was appreciably more reliable about matters relating to Bush's intentions in implementing policy, than are major environmentalist organizations in matters relating to the impact of environmental policy on people's health.

But before further wondering, I'll await your answer to my first question.

Well, there's clearly been lots of misleading stuff on this issue. My main source on this is what Bush and Whitman (then EPA director) said at the time and what happened subsequently.

Clinton implemented a change immediately before leaving office, without consulting the National Academy of Sciences, and Bush wanted to check with them first to see what they said. Since Clinton's change wasn't implemented immediately but was set to go into effect in 2006, it's kind of silly to claim that Bush's wanting to wait the same amount of time to see what the NAS said amounts to wanting to poison people. When the NAS confirmed the level Clinton had set it at, Bush reinstated the change he had set to take place in what is now next year. There is no effect on what Clinton had intended. It just took a bit longer because Bush wanted to make sure it was the right level. There had been other studies (though I don't think any of them were that recent, and they weren't all in exact agreement), but for some reason Whitman recommended waiting until this particular study, which had begun before Clinton implemented the rule change, could be completed. I'm not sure why waiting until it came out, when the change wouldn't go into effect for five years anyway, was a big deal.

Also, the numbers are often left out. The current level, the one Clinton operated with for 8 years, was 50 ppm. His executive act in his final days in office was to reduce it to 10 ppm. What Bush did was evaluate whether it needed to be as low as 10 ppm for safety or whether 20 ppm would be safe. The way most of the stuff I'd read was spinning it gave the impression that Bush wanted it at 50 ppm.

On this issue, it's quite clear that Bush was taking Chistie Whitman's advice to see what the scientific community would say before adopting the policy. The difference I've observed between conservatives and liberals on this issue is that conservatives tend not to assume a priori that everything Bush does is to bring us back to the dark ages, while liberals tend to assume exactly that just because someone told them so.

You wanted sources. See The National Center gives a pretty standard conservative line on it, and I'm pretty sure they're accurate on the facts, since this environmentalist site that also confirms the facts of what happened (though they conveniently left out the part about it not going into effect until 2006).

The second site I just linked says the standard should have been set lower to begin with, but that's a separate issue. The claim of the environmentalist groups that Bush had removed a regulation that Clinton had been operating with was just false in so many ways. They made it sound as if it had been Clinton policy all along. If it had been that urgent, he would have done it at the beginning of his first term, not at the end of his second. Even Ralph Nader thought this was a Clinton trap to set Bush up for criticism from the outset. It also wasn't to take effect until 5 years after Bush decided to investigate it further, and that investigation concluded within 9 months. The hysteria over this is just silly.

Now what I was saying in the post was that I was surprised to find out that there were issues here completely unrelated to any industries that conspiracy theorists might assume Bush was in the pocket of. If it's about the well-functioning of rural communities, then safety isn't the only issue. One of the other factors that I didn't mention is that there is also one safety issue that favored keeping the original levels. Arsenic is clearly better off being diluted than it is being concentrated, and reducing the levsl of arsenic in water would concentrate it.

I'm not sure that's a reason not to clean the water out more, but it's a factor in the mix due to the disposal issues, and it's one related to safety itself. So in addition to harming many communities where they'd need to spend lots of money increasing their filtering systems for the sake of something that wasn't clearly necessary (not clear at the time anyway), there were more complicating factors even related to safety. My thesis here is that the issues are not as staightforward as groups like the Sierra Club want to make them, and assuming (with no argument and a flimsy understanding of the facts) that Bush's motivations are evil is just a bad idea.

    The difference I've observed between conservatives and liberals on this issue is that conservatives tend not to assume a priori that everything Bush does is to bring us back to the dark ages, while liberals tend to assume exactly that just because someone told them so.

I assume here that you're speaking in a loose and popular sense. No, wait ... there is no loose and popular sense of "a priori," so I'm pretty sure I don't follow.

    My thesis here is that the issues are not as staightforward as groups like the Sierra Club want to make them, and assuming (with no argument and a flimsy understanding of the facts) that Bush's motivations are evil is just a bad idea.

Well, then I agree completely. Complicated issues as they are presented to the general public are never as simple as anyone says they. And it's never good to judge public officials' motives without any knowledge or understanding of the relevant facts.

I'm speaking quite literally. I see the same evidence as everyone else, and it doesn't justify the conclusion that Bush wants to bring back the dark ages. Thus those who do so are making an unwarranted assumption, or they have some a priori knowledge I don't have. Your last paragraph seems to agree with me on this.

I don't know what it means to "bring back the dark ages," so I'm not fit to comment on whether Bush is doing that, much less whether he wants to.

Intelligent critics of the Bush administration couldn't care less what Bush's intentions are. They resent his policies because of their predictable consequences.

So yes, I agree that people shouldn't be judging Bush's, or anyone else's, motives without being apprised of the relevant facts--that's just commonsense. I'll take it one step further and claim that Bush's intentions are practically irrelevant to evaluating the policies of his administration.

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