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Alaska Arsenic Rules Changed

Release Date: 2/23/1998
Contact Information: Sally Brough
(206) 553-1295 or 1-800-424-4372

February 23, 1998 - - - - - 98-7

EPA is making a rule change that could affect the arsenic limit in EPA wastewater discharge permits for some municipal sewage treatment plants, industrial operations and mining activities in Alaska. The Alaska rule modification was signed today in Washington, D.C., by EPA Administrator Carol Browner.

The change, which originated as a request from Governor Tony Knowles, will remove a federal Clean Water Act limit on arsenic and allow Alaska to use instead a Safe Drinking Water Act standard for bodies of freshwater receiving discharges of liquid wastes. As things stand now, all bodies of freshwater in Alaska receiving discharges of wastewater must meet a health criterion of 0.18 micrograms per liter; with the rule modification, a criterion of 50 micrograms per liter will apply.

The 50-microgram health criterion for arsenic is the limit long on the books in Alaska as the maximum contaminant level allowed by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The rule change will bring Alaska in line with several other states around the country that currently use the 50-microgram arsenic criterion as the health standard for freshwater within their borders.

The change also affects bodies of saltwater receiving wastewater discharges. The criterion is now 1.4 micrograms per liter; with the change in the rules, the criterion will be 36 micrograms per liter.

EPA believes the 50-microgram and 36-microgram criteria in most situations will protect the health of Alaskans drinking water and eating fish and other seafood. Both EPA and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) recognize there are some places in Alaska where native villagers consume higher than average quantities of fish and seafood from waters with high arsenic levels. In situations where ADEC has determined a health risk, ADEC will develop site-specific criteria that will be used by EPA to set more stringent effluent limits for arsenic in wastewater discharge permits.

With Browner's signature, the rule change for Alaska is now being sent to the Federal Register for publication as an official notice. Thirty days after publication, the 50-microgram and 36-microgram arsenic criteria for Alaska will take effect. With publication of the notice expected within the next 10 days or so, the effective date will probably be early in April.

EPA's proposal to change the arsenic criteria has been the subject of considerable controversy. More than five dozen letters were sent to EPA in favor of the relaxed criterion. Among the supporters were the State of Alaska; the cities of Anchorage, Homer, Sitka and Petersburg; the Kodiak Island Borough; the Alaska Miners Association; and two oil companies, ARCO and Unocal.

Two letters urged EPA not to make the change. One of them, signed by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and the Alaska Clean Water Alliance, was written on behalf of a dozen other environmental organizations that included the Trustees for Alaska, Cook Inlet Keeper, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.