W A S H I N G T O N, March 21, 2001 -- The Bush administration is continuing to slowly chip away at the Clinton legacy, withdrawing new rules that sharply limit arsenic in drinking water.
The rules, proposed during President Clinton's final days in office, would lower by 80 percent the amount of poisonous arsenic allowed in public drinking water. But it also would have forced 3,000 communities — largely in mining communities in the West — to spend money to upgrade their water systems to protect against arsenic poisoning.
EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman is backing away from the regulation, saying she will seek more public comment and scientific review — a process that could take months. Arsenic is a cancer-causing byproduct of mining gold, copper and other metals, and occurs naturally in groundwater — particularly in heavily populated parts of Michigan.
But Dr. Michael Harbut, chief of environmental medicine at Providence Hospital in Southfield, Mich., calls the move a blatant disregard for human health.
"From a common sense approach, I don't think any parent or any families is gonna want any arsenic in their water to be given to their children. And this approach of the government is at best irresponsible," Harbut said. "I hope this is not a harbinger of a free-for-all in the air and water by industry and polluters, but gosh, you sure worry about it."
The wife of the man behind the original rules, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said today it appears Bush is on a "harm offensive."
"It is baffling, just baffling," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said today. "We're going to have to put warning labels on water bottles if this goes through."
Gregory Wetstone, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, all but accused Bush of selling out the nation's health to the mining industry.
"People die as a result of drinking contaminated drinking water with arsenic," Wetstone said. "It's really tragic to see this effort slowed down and maybe stopped, really at the behest of campaign contributors and mining companies, which is how this looks."
Daschle vowed to join environmentalists in fighting Bush on the arsenic standards: "We will not allow this to stand. This is just not acceptable."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer defended Whitman's decision to throw out Clinton arsenic regulations, saying the president agrees with his EPA administrator that new rules should be "based on sound science."
In another move that has outraged environmentalists — and pleased the mining industry — the administration's Bureau of Land Management is proposing to suspend new rules that would force mining companies to cover more of the costs of cleaning up after their projects.
Asked if Bush was caving to pressure from mining interests, which made large contributions to the Republican Party, Fleischer responded, "The decision was based on the merits and science." The president himself responded to questions about the move today by saying simply, "We need a little common sense in environmental policy."
According to an EPA official, Whitman's office has been flooded with phone calls — mostly from Western communities — complaining about the high cost of complying with the Clinton administration's arsenic standard.
The current standard, based on data from 1942 data, allows 50 parts of arsenic per billion in drinking water. The new standard set by Whitman's predecessor would have reduced the permissible level to 10 parts per billion — the same standard adopted several years ago by the World Health Organization and the European Union. The National Academy of Sciences said back in 1999 that arsenic in drinking water can cause various cancers and that the standard should be revised downward "as promptly as possible."
But the EPA says it was getting complaints from Western cities and smaller communities that the tough new standard would be too costly.
Whitman's review will consider both the science and the cost of reducing the standard to 10ppb. The 60 days review is the standard extension but the communities have something like five years before they actually have to be in compliance with the regulation. Whitman's study will take several months to complete.
These latest controversial environmental moves come on the heels of Bush's recent reversal of a campaign promise that would have reduced carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
ABCNEWS' Bettina Gregory, Barry Serafin and ABCNEWS.com's Brian Hartman contributed to this report.