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Chemicals on Tap in American Cities
(Beyond Pesticides, July 29, 2003)
If you live in Chicago, you are drinking from the best municipal water supply in the country. But residents of Fresno, Phoenix, Boston, Baltimore, and Atlanta should avoid the fountain.

This is the conclusion of a recently released report by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that provides assessments for water-quality in 19 US cities. The June 2003 edition of What’s On Tap? Grading Drinking Water in U.S. Cities focuses on the effects of aging infrastructure and source water pollution. It specifically attacks the Bush administration’s rollbacks of water quality regulations as a major cause of urban water woes. Finally, NRDC warns legislators that if swift action to protect America’s water is not taken, the situation could worsen rapidly.

The report presents NRDC’s assessment of three problem areas – water quality and compliance, source water protection, and right-to-know compliance - on a scale ranging from “excellent” to “failing” for 2000 and 2001. It concludes that the proposed efforts of the Bush administration to rewrite the Clean Water Act would severely reduce the Act’s regulatory power, threatening watersheds, streams, wetlands, and drinking water sources with unprecedented levels of contamination and toxicity. NRDC also projects how the potential changes would jeopardize the safety of drinking water in 15 U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Manchester, and Washington, DC. The cities were selected to represent a broad range of water supplies, including small cities and urban centers, groundwater systems and surface water systems, and different treatment methods.

In evaluating water-quality compliance, NRDC examines three areas for each city: source water protection, treatment, and maintenance and operation of the treatment system. Some cities, like Fresno, have no source water protection. Others, like Atlanta, do not maintain their existing system adequately. NRDC noted that certain harmful contaminants reoccur in multiple systems: lead (entering drinking water due to pipe corrosion), chlorination by-products that may cause cancer (such as haloacetic acids), and atrazine (an endocrine disruptor and cancer-causing pesticide). Other notable contaminants found in American drinking water include rocket fuel, arsenic, and Cryptosporidium, a disease-carrying bacterium.

In addition to issuing specific recommendations on improving drinking water quality in each city it evaluated, the report makes more general suggestions on legislative and executive actions that should be taken to protect America’s health and safety. According to NRDC, Congress should:

*restore the application of the Clean Water Act to all streams, wetlands, and waters in the nation.
*block Bush administration efforts to weaken clean water protections from sewage and other pollutants.
*fully fund the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds.
*reinstate the ban on stream destruction from mountaintop removal mining.
*reinstitute the Superfund "polluter pays" program by restoring the fee on the chemical industry to pay for the program.
*restore full funding for land acquisition in the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

According to NRDC, the Bush Administration should:

*halt its effort to weaken sewage treatment rules.
*abandon rulemaking to limit the scope of Clean Water Act protections.
*implement, not undermine, the polluted waters cleanup program.
*immediately move forward with new standards for Cryptosporidium, total trihalomethanes, haloacetic acids, radon, groundwater pathogens, perchlorate, and distribution system protection, and strengthen existing standards for bacteria, lead, chromium, atrazine, triazines, pesticides, fluoride, and other chemicals.

The report also suggests that the current methods of water-quality control employed by state and municipal governments are ineffective in removing so-called “21st century contaminants,” such as arsenic and pesticides.