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Jewish World Review March 26, 2001 / 2 Nissan, 5761

Jay Ambrose

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Consumer Reports

Who's really getting away with murder? -- THE way Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California puts it in a Scripps Howard news story, the president of the United States has "declared war on the environment" and "people will die."

Carl Pope of the Sierra Club echoes a similar sentiment, saying that "President Bush made a policy U-turn that will haunt our children."

And Eric Olsen of the National Resources Defense Council chimes in, saying, "Many will die from arsenic-related cancers and other diseases but George Bush apparently doesn't care."

In short, these people are coming close to calling the president a murderer or, at the very least, an enemy of the nation's children and someone who would happily fiddle while his fellow Americans suffered and perished. If these judgments are demonstrably in error and no one lambastes this rhetoric, aren't these critics the ones getting away with murder? Aren't they then lying or engaging in a form of grossly irresponsible, demagogic overstatement?

To decide, take a look at one of the recent actions that set off their storm of protest. Christine Todd Whitman, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the administration wanted to undertake a 60-day review of a policy that would reduce the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water. She did not say the policy would be scrapped, only that there was no scientific consensus on what the precise level should be.


What should be underlined is that the new standard - ordered in the last weeks of the Clinton administration - is not scheduled to go into effect for three years. The review will not necessarily delay anything. Even the most virulent critics of Whitman agree that there is no scientific agreement on what amount of arsenic should be permissible. Experts do agree that the standard in effect since 1942 allows too much arsenic in water and poses cancer risks, but the new standard would reduce the allowable amount by 80 percent and could be far more stringent than needed for the sake of human health.

That matters, as Whitman said, because of the implementation costs of hundreds of millions of dollars to the 3,000 affected communities. The mining industry, critics note, will be affected, too, but there is no reason to think the mining industry should be needlessly punished.

Since 1962, federal officials have been saying the permissible arsenic level should be reduced. It would therefore be a sounder argument to say people have died because of the unresponsiveness of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, the senior Bush and even last-minute Clinton than to criticize George W. Bush. All his administration has done is to say it will take a second look at the action of a president whose judgments toward the end of his tenure have been questioned by many.

The exaggerated claims of some politicians and environmentalists, instead of serving their cause, undermine it through the credibility it costs them with anyone who looks at the facts.

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