EPA maps plan to safeguard drinking water for 100 million Americans

It's hard to get excited about ground water, even though more than 85 billion gallons of it is withdrawn from the earth each day, and over 100 million Americans depend on it for their drinking water.

But with the attention focused on hazardous waste, many Americans are also becoming concerned about the effect pollution is having on ground water supplies.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is so concerned about ground water -- water found underground in porous rock strata and soils, as from a spring -- that it recently called 80 representatives from state, local, environmental, business and industry, and public interest groups to Washington, D.C., to help develop a national Ground Water Protection Strategy.

"The idea was . . . to put them all in one room at one time and let them yell at each other and try to get something constructive out of it, to see if they could develop any positions of consensus," says one conference organizer.

Armed with facts, figures, and basic background material, the participants were divided into 10-person work groups and told to develop a plan including goals and a regulatory mechanism.

Victor Kimm, the EPA deputy assistant administrator who headed the conference , says he is very pleased with the results and thinks the participants were as well.

He says there were several areas of consensus, adding, "It's unusual to get industry people and environmental groups to agree on anything."

Most plans were committed to protecting ground water quality "from significant deterioration" but recognized that some deterioration was inevitable from industrial and other pollutants such as farm fertilizers and road salt.

Several groups decided to classify ground water by usage. Some water would be suitable for drinking, some for irrigation, and some would be degraded to allow for establishing hazardous waste facilities and dumps.

"Another area of general agreement was the fact that there are an array of ground water problems created over decades . . .," Mr. Kimm says. "It's not a problem we can solve in the next six months.We need a very carefully orchestrated federal, state, and local effort over the next 5 or 10 years to really get a handle on it."

Actually, there was remarkably little yelling.The sharpest differences of opinion came when groups tried to determine the roles that the federal, state, and local governments should play.

"We could agree on the problem, and on some programs, but where the issue came apart was 'who's going to do what to whom,'" says Thomas guildehaus, a vice-president of Deere & Co. "The Western states are rabid about water allocations being a state's rights thing."

Dr. Jay Lehr of the National Walter Well Association says after considering that problem his group finally decided that water classification should be done on a state or regional basis, with the EPA providing some sort of technical help along with money for ground water protection programs.

Not everyone was pleased with the conference strategies. Mary Hook of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, a private non-profit environmental group, had some reservations:

"I was very disappointed in the lack of discussion about compromising ground water. I realize that in the real world situation we generate waste and have to put it somewhere, which will compromise ground water. But there wasn't much more than lip service paid to reducing waste, or eliminating some waste altogether. . . . I think it's very realistic to talk about reducing waste, and a good ground water protection strategy should address that."

Seth J. Abbott, a manager of Arco Oil & Gas Company, while saying he was pleasantly surprised at the conference, admits he thinks he will still have difficulty with the EPA's eventual policy. Not as much, though, as if there had been no conference:

"I had seen the list of invitees and was quite concerned that it seemed to be heavily weighted in favor of what I would refer to as environmentalists. . . . I went there thinking by my presence I was going to give credence to something the EPA had already decided upon. But I came away feeling that some good was done."

Dr. lehr also gives the conference high marks:

"Most of these types of programs are public relations tools more than a sincere desire to elicit the best thinking of the people. The government comes up with some ideas, makes sure they run them past people, then do what they want. . . . The EPA certainly may still go off and do something a little different than some of us would want them to do, but i think that desire to get input was more genuine, more of an educational orientation than I've ever seen."

Mr. Kimm says the EPA draft should be finished by late summer and published in the Federal Register. Then, in the fall, public hearings will be held in five cities to get an additional airing of views.

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