Copyright 2002 by the Chicago Tribune
Thursday, March 28, 2002
EPA chief sounds alarm on water for U.S., world
Michael Kilian, Washington Bureau
Threats to water quality and quantity pose the greatest
environmental challenge to the United States, in large part because of
climate change and antiquated and deteriorating water systems,
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman warned
She said New York and other major cities are
through pipes more than a century old.
Addressing reporters at a breakfast meeting, Whitman said she has
asked for congressional hearings this spring to help determine the
extent of the water shortage and pollution-control problems and the
cost of solving them.
"Water is going to be the biggest environmental issue that we
face in the 21st Century, in terms of both quantity and quality,"
she said. "Look [at drought problems] around the United States and
around the world. Look at the Mideast, where there's a severe
drought going on. Clean water is a major problem in Afghanistan. We
have a million children dying every year from waterborne diseases
that are entirely preventable."
Whitman also urged Congress to replace the federal government's
controversial new source review policy for controlling power plant
pollution with a program called Clear Skies that President Bush has
The EPA chief said the president believes global warming presents
a problem but is uncertain how to focus the government's resources
for dealing with it.
Several studies over the last year support Whitman's concern
The most recent report, released last month by the Harvard
University School of Public Health, found that although water is
relatively abundant in the U.S., "current trends are sufficient to
strain water resources over time, especially on a regional basis."
The study cited as contributing factors the deterioration of
public water infrastructure such as pipes, as well as global climate
effects, waterborne disease, land use, groundwater and surface water
contamination, and ineffective government regulations.
"U.S. public drinking water supplies will face challenges in
these areas in the next century and . . . solutions to at least some
of them will require institutional changes," the report said.
At least $151 billion needs to be spent over the next 20 years to
guarantee the continued high quality of U.S. water, the report said.
The Water Infrastructure Network, a national coalition of local
government officials, water and water treatment utilities, health
administrators, engineers, and environmentalists, reported similar
findings last year, putting the total cost of solving the problem at
The coalition's study said that an additional $23 billion a year
must be spent on the nation's 54,000 community water systems to meet
all the requirements of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water
Act and to replace aging and failing pipes and other infrastructure.
The federal government now spends about $3 billion a year on
water resources and wastewater treatment, the group's report said.
Whitman emphasized that estimates of the costs of meeting
American's future water needs did not include protecting water
systems against contamination by terrorists.
"That's just for leaky infrastructure," she said. "They're
leaking. Sewer and septic systems are a problem. Clearly those
dollar figures are way beyond the ability of any single entity to
address. The federal government can't do it. The state governments
can't do it. The municipal governments can't do it. The utilities
can't do it. It's going to be an enormous [dollar] number."
The new source review is a government regulatory program
requiring power companies to upgrade pollution-control equipment
when they expand existing plants. The federal government has filed
suit against 51 power plants that it charges are evading the new
Whitman complained that the source regulatory scheme involves the
government in every step of a power company's implementation of new
pollution controls and is counterproductive.
She called instead for adoption of Bush's Clear Skies program,
which would simply set limits for power plant pollution emissions
and leave it to the power companies to comply as they see fit.
"What 'Clear Skies' does is set the cap," she said. "It doesn't
go and tell the utilities, 'You have to do this here and this there
and that there at your facility.' You get there however you want."
She said Bush's program would result in 25 million tons fewer
sulfur dioxide emissions than the Clean Air Act regulations would
over 10 years.
"There would be a 10 million-ton better reduction in nitrous
oxide emissions over 10 years and 20 million tons less of mercury
over six years," she said.
Whitman denied environmentalist complaints that Bush is doing
nothing about global warming.
"What the president has done is say, 'Look, we have a problem here. We
all know that something exists. We don't have all the science that will
tell you exactly what needs to be done. We need to know where to focus
our resources to make the kind of decisions we need to make. We need