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25th Anniversary of Safe Drinking Water Act

Remarks Prepared for Carol M. Browner, Administrator
Environmental Protection Agency
25th Anniversary of Safe Drinking Water Act
                      Washington, D.C.
                       December 16, 1999                               

     I'd like to thank Cynthia for that introduction.
     Good evening and thank you all for coming to what is really a celebration. And it's not just a celebration of a law that advanced public health. It's a celebration of the partnerships that brought us -- and continues to bring us -- clean water to drink. It's a celebration of your hard work and success. And we thank you.
     December is a big month for celebrations, of course. But that is especially true for us at EPA. So much of what we have been able to accomplish with the American people   so many firsts for public health and the environment   happened in this final month of the year.
     EPA was founded on December 2, 1970. And next year we look forward to celebrating our 30th Anniversary next year.
     In December of 1972, our ban on DDT went into effect. In December 1977, important amendments to the Clean Water Act were signed into law. In December 1980, Superfund legislation was passed by Congress.
     And on this day, 25 years ago, the Safe Drinking Water Act was signed into law.
     It's almost hard to believe the situation that existed before the Safe Drinking Water Act became law.
     Although there were minimal guidelines, there were no binding national standards for treating or testing the nation's drinking water -- or ensuring its quality. A glass of safe, clean water was not a right. For many, it was a roll of the dice. Your community might have clean water. It might not. Minimal guidelines, no national standards and no right to know.
     Listen to these facts from our very recent past.
     From 1961 to 1970   a nine-year period   about once a month, somewhere in the United States a community suffered an outbreak of waterborne disease. Those outbreaks sickened 46,000 people. Twenty people died.
     In 1970, the United States Public Health Service reported that 41 percent of the systems it surveyed didn't even meet the minimal standards of the day. The report estimated that 25 million people were getting substandard water. And eight million people were getting water that was potentially dangerous to drink.
     Shortly after the report was issued, the first Safe Drinking Water bills were drawn up in Congress. But then the issue languished for four years. In fact, in October of 1974, the bill was "hanging by a parliamentary thread" and was on the verge of being killed in the House of Representatives.
     What was Congress saying? Some of it, was the usual: `It will cost too much. It gives the federal government too much power.'
     One Congressional critic went so far as to say that passing this bill would mean "you'll see an EPA inspector every time you opened your tap."
     Then in November of 1974 some new studies came out that said that tap water might be doing worse things than causing stomach illness. It could be giving people cancer.
     That did it. The public demanded action. No parent wanted to believe that when they handed a thirsty child a glass of water they could actually be poisoning them.
     Finally the House and Senate passed the Safe Drinking Water Act and the President signed it into law.
     Since the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act, together we have made remarkable progress and   once again   proved the critics wrong.
     Common sense measures to protect public health are never a burden. And when the health of our families is our national focus, we all prosper.
     Before the Safe Drinking Water Act, all that existed nationally were guidelines for just 28 substances. Now we have binding regulations on more than 90 contaminants.
     And remember that before the Safe Drinking Water Act, 41 percent of utilities surveyed were failing to deliver clean, healthy water. Last year, 92 percent of our nation's water systems -- serving nearly 90 percent of the population -- reported no health standard violations.

     But the Clinton/Gore Administration felt we could do even better.
     And so the Administration called for Congress to strengthen the drinking water law and in 1996, the President signed into law the new Safe Drinking Water Act.
     This new law included higher public health standards, consumer right to know provisions and the first-ever funding for communities to install and upgrade drinking water facilities.  
     In the just over three years since the new law passed, working as partners, we have made tremendous progress in providing communities with the tools and resources they need to ensure their families have clean drinking water.
     To help communities finance improvements to their water systems, we set up the multi- billion dollar Drinking Water State Revolving Fund   the first ever. So far, more than $2.7 billion has been given to the states, financing more than 800 projects.
     The 1996 amendments also emphasized pollution prevention by providing states and communities with new programs and incentives to protect the sources of their drinking water from contamination. And the states are working on those source water assessments now. Rather than relying on treatment to clean up problems, together we can eliminate problems before they occur.
     We also believed that Americans have the right to know what is in their water.
     This year, for the first time, 55,000 water systems serving 250 million Americans were required to provide "consumer confidence" reports on the water they delivered. And they must continue to do this at least once a year.
     For the first time, water consumers are being told about the safety of their local drinking water -- including where it comes from, what is in it and what threatens it. You've put these reports together and you know they are powerful tools.
     And we continue to work to set scientific standards.
     We could not have accomplished all this without the help of the people in this room: The plant operators, engineers, scientists, regulators, public and consumer advocacy groups and outstanding individuals who have all worked together to ensure that our drinking water is the safest it can be.
     Building on 25 years of experience, together as partners we have successfully transformed the Safe Drinking Water Act into a comprehensive environmental and public health protection effort. It is truly a success story.
     A story that is told in this new report, which EPA has produced in honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act. This new publication complements other materials created over the year in honor of the anniversary.
     And while I thank you for all the work you have done   and all the work you will do   I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the seven "drinking water heros" whose achievements you will honor later tonight.
     Jay Van Hoose, Marla Smith, Douglas Hall, John Barrett, Rick Cobb, Jim Fay, and Hyder Hope Houston.
     Thank you for your extraordinary efforts on behalf of public health.
     Americans enjoy some of the safest drinking water in the world. And I believe that by working together, things will be even better 25 years from now. We know there are challenges over the horizon. And we know we can meet them. We always have.
     Clean drinking water is a cornerstone of public health.  Our job today and tomorrow is to make certain that every American community has safe, clean water to drink at all times.
     You know, in ancient times, governments were first formed to build, maintain and protect fresh water systems. This duty came before there were courts, currencies or even standing armies.
     The new century is just 15 days away. But as we think of the future, let's remember that
our goal is as old as civilization itself: Providing fresh, healthy water for ourselves and the generations that follow.
     Thank you.