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December 2001: Volume 43, Number 12

New arsenic standard opens doors for POU/POE, again
by Carlos David Mogollon, WC&P Executive Editor

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That's the time from when the Bush Administration proposed withdrawing the new arsenic in drinking water standard of 10 ppb approved by Bill Clinton as one of the many "midnight regulations" signed in the waning hours of his presidency and affirmation of that new MCL. USEPA chief Christine Whitman, who suspended implementation March 20 for a general review, reaffirmed the new level on Halloween. It matches the World Health Organization guideline established in 1993 -- a fifth of the previous 50-year-old U.S. standard.

The new rule also reaffirms POU/POE water treatment's import for small systems (and larger ones as well) in protecting customers and allowing consumers -- particularly well owners -- better peace of mind that the water they drink can meet the tighter restriction. But that still doesn't mean a "plug and play" mentality can suffice in offering the assurance required. Because of the health risks of arsenic, as evidenced by a recent National Academy of Sciences report on cancer incidence, etc., treatment requires careful monitoring and maintenance to ensure system integrity. This isn't lost on Whitman.

"Nearly 97 percent of the water systems affected by this rule are small systems that serve fewer than 10,000 people each," she noted in her letter to Congress on the topic. "I recognize the challenges many small systems will face in complying with this standard, given their higher per capita costs. Therefore, I am committed to working closely with states and small water systems to identify ways to reduce arsenic levels at a reasonable cost to ratepayers."

Thus, the USEPA plans to provide $20 million over two years for research and development of more cost-effective technologies to help small systems meet the new standard, Whitman said. The agency will also provide technical assistance and training to operators of small systems to reduce compliance costs. And it will work with small communities to maximize grants and loans under current State Revolving Fund and Rural Utilities Service programs.

The compliance date still stands at January 2006, offering places like Albuquerque, N.M. -- the city believed most seriously affected, considering naturally present arsenic levels averaging 13 ppb -- a chance to prepare. The city, which is testing microfiltration and advanced oxidation removal techniques, estimate costs to meet the new standard at $250 million, more than half that projected for the entire state.

WQA technical director Joe Harrison said it likely will be cheaper: "WQA supports a standard of 10 or lower because our products can economically achieve that level. We could even go down to 5 ppb. This NDWAC Arsenic Cost Working Group brought that forward this summer. Instead of $30 or more a family, the cost is actually $20 or less for POU. With ROs these days, if a community signs up an entire population that's easily achievable. These new absorbent medias, such as the one from a German university, GFH, and Apyron, are emerging as other cost effective methods. All of them are iron-based absorbents."

Included in that working group were WQA World Assembly Division's P. Regunathan, Arsenic Solutions Inc.'s Matt Simmons and Engelhard Corp.'s Frank Ardite.

On another note, an Italian affiliate of Austria's BWT, chairman of Unione Agua Italia and WQA member (all the same guy) took umbrage with a letter from Pentair's Jorge Fernandez soliciting corporate support of the International HPC Conference in April in Geneva, while using language critical of the German DIN standard for softeners. Nothing seemed ostensibly incorrect, but the letter -- which focused on the standard's impact on U.S. exports -- should have been rewritten for a European audience.

Harrison said the WHO had signed on as a sponsor for the conference, cosponsored by NSF and supported by the USEPA and IBWA. WQA/WQRC are contributing $10,000. Another eight companies, as of early November, had committed $30,000. Fernandez was seeking at least $70,000 from a minimum of 14 companies.