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Perata calls for higher arsenic standards

By Daniela Mohor Daily Planet staff
Saturday June 23, 2001

OAKLAND – State Sen. Don Perata and representatives from a number of environmental and cancer prevention groups strongly criticized the Bush administration’s environmental policy during a press conference to support a bill to establish higher standards for arsenic in drinking water. 

“This bill is a response to (President) Bush’s immediate intention upon his swearing in to begin to relax the standards that we have,” Perata said during the briefing at Lake Temescal Friday. “California cannot wait for the Bush administration to decide on the safety of our drinking water and the fate of our health.” 

Perata, who represents the Berkeley-Oakland area, wrote the bill after the Bush administration decided not to pursue former President Bill Clinton’s efforts to reduce the amount of arsenic, a natural but dangerous contaminant in tap water. The measure would require California’s Department of Health Services to conduct a feasibility analysis and to adopt a standard reducing arsenic levels to three parts per billion. Established in 1942, the current standard is 50 parts per billion and represents a cancer risk of one per 100. The bill, SB 463 would also force water providers to better notify their consumers of the adverse health effects from the ingestion of arsenic in water. Exposure to arsenic is known to cause cancer, and it can also lead to heart problems, diabetes, and endocrine system problems. 

Perata was not alone in his criticism of the Bush administration. Jon Rainwater, executive director of the California League of Conservation Voters blamed Bush for not setting public health as a priority. “We can not trust President Bush to put the public health before the interests of his campaign contributors,” said Rainwater, adding that the president’s refusal to raise the standard for arsenic may be related to his interest in protecting the mining industry. “The mining industry... released 585 million pounds of arsenic into the environment last year,” he said. “And the same industry pumped $6.5 million into last year’s elections. The largest recipient for that money was President Bush.” 

But Republicans see the value in Bush’s decision to drop Clinton’s proposal. “From what I’ve read, the Clinton standard was basically impossible for companies to comply with,” said Robb McFadden, chair of the Berkeley College Republicans. “People who criticize the Bush administration for being environmentally hostile are really doing it for their political purposes.” 

The bill recently passed out of the State Senate on a 23-11 vote and will be presented to the Assembly in July. But it still faces strong opposition. Only one water agency in the state, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, supports it. “You would think that water agencies would be on our side,” said Perata. “Nine times out of ten they’re in opposition to our policies.” 

The senator attributes this resistance to the water companies’ reluctance to pay the additional costs a higher standard of purification of their product would entail. “This is about money. It’s about requiring someone to make less profit so that somebody else has better health,” he said. 

Still, Perata said he is fully confident that the bill will pass in the state legislature and reach Gov. Gray Davis’ office for signature and set an example to the country. “California will set its own standard,” he said. “The state of California will impress upon the nation how we should be governing ourselves with regards to the environment.”