Water carcinogen cut praised – Huntsville Times 12/20/07

Water carcinogen cut praised – Huntsville Times 12/20/07

Times Staff Writer steve.doyle@htimes.com

In what is being celebrated as a major public health victory, a state environmental panel has voted to reduce the amount of cancer-causing substances that industries can release into waterways.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s governing board, the Environmental Management Commission, voted 3-1 on Friday to begin creating tougher standards for 57 carcinogens. Arsenic from coal-burning power plants was excluded from the proposal.

Dr. Kathleen Felker, a commission member from Huntsville who voted for the change, said reducing the amount of carcinogens going into state waters is good for fish and, ultimately, people. A radiologist, Felker spends her days treating cancer patients.

“For me as a physician, it’s very important that we decrease our cancer risk in any way possible,” she said Wednesday. “This is going in the right direction.”

Since 1991, Alabama has used the least stringent standards allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine the level of cancer-causing substances that factories can discharge into waterways.

The proposed rules would change what Alabama considers an acceptable risk from carcinogens from one cancer case per 100,000 residents to one case per 1 million residents. Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and the Carolinas already use that threshold.

Conservation Alabama spokesman Adam Snyder said environmentalists who began pushing for tougher standards in late 2006 are thrilled.

“We beat up on the commission and ADEM when they deserve it,” Snyder said Wednesday, “but they deserve praise when they do the right thing for the people of Alabama. This is a huge step … that will be a great benefit to the health of Alabama’s citizens. It brings us on par with the rest of the Southeast and the country.”

Last week’s vote authorizes ADEM Director Trey Glenn to put the proposed standards in writing and gather public comments. That should take about six months, Snyder said, after which the environmental panel will vote on adopting the new rules.

About 1,900 businesses and municipal sewage treatment plants are permitted by ADEM to release carcinogens into state waterways, said agency spokesman Scott Hughes. The substances most commonly covered by discharge permits are benzene, hexachlorobenzene and arsenic, he said.

Alabama Power, the Business Council of Alabama and several others opposed the changes, arguing that ADEM’s current carcinogen standards protect human health and the environment.

In a May letter, Alabama Power’s environmental compliance manager, John D. Grogan, said it would cost the utility millions of dollars to build water treatment plants capable of reducing arsenic to the nearly “non-detectable” levels sought by environmental groups.

Arsenic is found in coal and in the ash produced by coal-burning power plants.

Felker said she did not have a problem excluding arsenic from the list of more tightly regulated carcinogens, because Alabama already has tougher arsenic standards than most surrounding states.

“I didn’t think it was fair to ask our industries to go any further (to limit arsenic) when the rest of the Southeast isn’t even doing it,” she said.

Environmental Management Commission member Sam Wainwright voted against the tighter standards. Although the Montgomery engineer said he has battled prostate cancer for several years and is sensitive to the issue, he said no one offered any scientific proof that the move will reduce cancer deaths.

© 2007 The Huntsville Times

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