TCS Daily

Greens vs. Poor People

By Nick Schulz - November 6, 2001 12:00 AM

On Halloween, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman went forward with a move that should scare the daylights out of poor folks in New Mexico and throughout the Southwest.

The EPA announced the new standard for the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water would be 10 parts per billion (PPB). The current standard, in place for half a century, is 50 PPB. All U.S. drinking water systems must be compliant by 2006 .

"The Bush administration is committed to protecting the environment and the health of all Americans," Whitman said. "This standard will improve the safety of drinking water for millions of Americans, and better protect against the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes."

From a scientific perspective, the standard provides little real added protection. And it does this at a very high cost. So why then is Whitman - in a Republican administration - not only implementing such an overly stringent rule but also issuing such a powerful statement of support for it? To understand the reasons, it's instructive to look back to the last days of the Clinton administration.

'More Arsenic, Please'

The new arsenic standard isn't truly new. It's one of several midnight regulations President Clinton handed down during his final days in office on a to-do list that read something like this: Pardon fugitive tax cheat? Check. Issue intrusive new ergonomic standards? Check. Pack up White House furniture that's not mine? Check. Set political booby-trap for new administration by issuing strict arsenic regulation? Check.

The Bush administration after Inauguration Day wisely decided to review all of the regulations its predecessor handed down in January. The Bush team sensed the arsenic ruling was a political stunt - after all, if arsenic posed such a threat, why did Clinton wait until his last days in office to act? So they suspended the regulation back in April in order to put it under further scientific review.

Before the review could even begin, the suspension drew a stinging backlash from environmental groups and the Democratic party. The DNC produced a TV commercial with a kid asking, "Can I have some more arsenic in my drinking water, Mommy?"

It was fabulously effective propaganda - compassionate conservatism = poisoning children. It also caught the young administration off guard.

Most important - and quite deliberately - this propaganda ignored the real world questions about the costs any tightened standard would impose on communities and the actual health benefits they'd receive. Examining the potential costs and benefits as well as the potential hazards involved would have helped the administration make a smarter decision.

"Safety Is a Matter of Degree"

One of the best studies was conducted by the Brookings Institution-American Enterprise Institute Joint Center for Regulatory Studies by Jason Burnett and Bob Hahn. It found that forcing compliance with a tighter standard would be a tragic mistake: "... the rule probably will result in a net loss of life. The direct effect of the rule will be to save about 10 lives annually in the future. After taking into account the indirect impacts of the cost of the rule on items like health care expenditures, however, we find that the rule is likely to result in a net loss of about 10 lives annually."

Not surprisingly, other studies cast doubt on Burnett's and Hahn's assertions. For example Harvard physicist Richard Wilson recently studied the link between arsenic and cancer and found that it might be more significant than scientists had previously understood. In a new report , he stated that "the latest science supports tighter standards."

The my-data-vs.-your-data arsenic standoff prompted a thoughtful report on the limits and virtues of cost-benefit analysis from the Brooking-AEI Joint Center by Cass Sunstein, a professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago best known for his impassioned defense of President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Sunstein concluded that cost-benefit analyses provide such a wide potential range of costs and benefits that we couldn't know enough, in this instance, to know exactly what should be done at a national level.

Why? The costs of meeting the standards will be exceptionally high in some areas -- such as in New Mexico and other parts of the economically poor desert southwest, where arsenic occurs naturally in the drinking water. But in areas without such problems, costs will be much lower. So, while the "benefit" of imposing a uniform standard is believed to be equally shared, the costs of compliance are not.

And since under federal guidelines standards must apply equally to all areas of the country, there's no room for flexibility, despite the nation's geographic and ecological diversity.

Sunstein suggested, "the EPA should have the authority to impose national standards that are not uniform" - different standards for different regions. While his suggestion does make one wonder why New Mexicans can't determine their own standards for themselves, Sunstein's proposal would certainly be an improvement over the current one-size-fits-all practice by the EPA in Washington. That's especially true in poorer areas of the country where the burden of compliance will fall most heavily on those who can least afford it.

Of course, as Sunstein pointed out, many environmentalists would respond: "Shouldn't poor people have water that is as safe as that of rich people? Why should poor people, including poor children, have water quality inferior to that enjoyed by rich people?"

So Sunstein provided a solid rejoinder: "Safety is a matter of degree, and if safer water quality is very expensive, then poor people are better off without it than with it." He then offered an instructive analogy. "Cars should certainly be safe," he said, " but rich people are more likely than poor people to buy Volvos. It would not be a good idea for the government to force poor people to buy Volvos, and the reason is that if you are poor, you might reasonably use what money you have on something other than adding an additional margin of safety to your car. Perhaps you will use that money on food, or medical care, or shelter. The same is true for water quality. If the consequence of decreasing (small) risks is to significantly decrease family income for poor people, then it is perfectly legitimate for the government to refuse to act."

Floyd Frost, an epidemiologist in Albuquerque, N.M., put the problem the new standard poses for people in his area in stark and specific terms. Writing in the Washington Post on Sept. 16 before the EPA made its decision, Frost pointed out "under the [proposed] standard, household water bills in small ... and relatively poor ... rural communities would increase from $50 to $90 per month, an untenable amount for many residents." He also cited potential health hazards of transporting "the chemicals needed to remove arsenic," such as sulfuric acid and caustic soda.

Six months ago, the administration clearly appreciated these kinds of concerns. Back in an April 21 appearance on CNN, the EPA's Whitman made the case for a cautious approach to excessive water regulations. "We have seen instances... where arsenic is naturally occurring at up to 700 or more parts per billion, where the cost of remediation has forced water companies to close, leaving people with no sure way to get their water, save dig wells. And then they are getting water that's even worse than what they were getting through the water company."

That, though, was before the simple sloganeering and phony imagery provided by green groups set the administration to retreat.

At this point, of course, it is too late for a more sensible solution. Cold comfort to poor New Mexicans, to be sure. But the administration and responsible health officials need to prepare. Aggressive greens, once they get their way, tend to flail dead horses repeatedly. No sooner had Whitman issued her statement behind the new standards than California's Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer trashed Whitman, calling her move "nine months overdue" and vowing to push the level still lower, to 3 PPB.

Should Boxer and others do so, those worried about the unintended consequences of environmental regulations will need to make the case we rarely hear these days: it is poor people who often suffer the most when slogans trump sound science and economics.

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