Chairman Boxer, Ranking Member Inhofe, and Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to discuss the safety of our nation’s drinking water. Every day, across the country, Americans – in rural areas and in urban areas; in rich neighborhoods and in poor neighborhoods; in red states and in blue states, turn on their taps and expect safe water to drink.
The EPA – and the states that implement the nation’s drinking water laws – are responsible for ensuring that our water is safe, which means addressing new and emerging threats from toxic chemicals that can get into drinking water and affect the health of the public, particularly our children.
Today, I’m pleased to announce that EPA will start plans for controlling toxic contamination of the chemical known as perchlorate in our drinking water. Perchlorate, as many on this committee know, is a toxic component of rocket fuel that can cause thyroid problems and may disrupt the normal growth and development of children in the womb. This decision, which has been years in the making, is about two things.
First and foremost, it is about protecting the health of between 5 and 17 million Americans that are exposed to perchlorate in the water that they drink. Second, this decision is about following the science. Perchlorate has been studied and reviewed for years. The science that has led to this decision has been peer reviewed by independent scientists, public health experts and many others.
The next step is to update our laws in a way that is sensible and practical for protecting the health of the American people. We must evaluate the feasibility and affordability of treatment technologies, and the costs and benefits of potential standards. And, of course, we must always make sure our approach is based on up-to-date, sound science.
We will also continue to make sure that we act as quickly as possible to protect our health from emerging threats in our drinking water, including from contaminants such as hexavalent chromium – or chromium-6, a toxic contaminant that is a well known human carcinogen when inhaled. Recent animal testing data have demonstrated carcinogenicity associated with ingesting chromium-6 in drinking water.
That discovery, along with a recent report by the Environmental Working Group that found elevated levels of chromium-6 in more than 30 public water systems has heightened public concern about the presence of chromium-6 in drinking water. While this report was a “snapshot in time,” it is consistent with other studies that have also detected chromium-6 in public water systems.
As with perchlorate, science will guide all of our actions on chromium-6. We are working to finalize the human health assessment for this chemical. After an independent and external scientific peer review this spring, we expect to finalize the assessment by the end of the year. Based on the current draft assessment, it is likely that we will tighten our drinking water standards for this contaminant. However, let me be clear, we will wait for our human health assessment on chromium-6 to be finalized and have gone through peer review before we consider updating our regulation of this contaminant.
In the meantime, we have taken a series of steps to better understand this threat and protect the health of the American people.
First, EPA is working with state and local officials to better determine how widespread and prevalent this contaminant is in our nation’s drinking water.
Second, we have provided guidance to all water systems nationwide on how to test for and sample drinking water for chromium-6. This guidance was released two weeks ago and provides recommendations on where the systems should collect samples and how often they should be collected, along with analytical methods for laboratory testing.
Finally, EPA is offering technical expertise and assistance to communities with the highest levels of chromium-6 in drinking water.
Finally, Madam Chairman, I’d like to give a brief update to the committee on where the agency is with our “Drinking Water Strategy,” which I announced about a year ago. This strategy was designed to transform the agency so that we could use existing laws to achieve greater health protection more quickly, cost-effectively, and transparently. I am pleased to say that in the last year we have made a great deal of progress on this approach.
One key component of the new drinking water strategy is to address contaminants as groups rather than individually, as the agency has traditionally done. This new approach speeds up action on new and emerging threats to our drinking water. I am pleased to announce that EPA has selected the first group and will be working towards developing an update to the Safe Drinking Water Act to address up to 16 Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which are chemicals such as industrial solvents, that may cause cancer.
Another component of the drinking water strategy is to work with businesses and universities and to promote economic growth and technology innovation. Two weeks ago, with the Small Business Administration, we announced the formation of a regional water technology innovation cluster – with local businesses, governments and universities - in the Greater Cincinnati area. The cluster will not only assist in developing technology safe guards for drinking water and the protection of public health, but it will also encourage sustainable economic development, and create jobs.
In closing, Madam Chairman, clean and safe water is the foundation of healthy communities, healthy families, and healthy economies. And clean and safe water is not a luxury or a privilege – it is a right of all Americans. I look forward to working with this committee to make sure that right is always protected. I welcome any questions you may have.