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Congress prods EPA to review arsenic risk

A measure sets a Feb. 15 deadline for the agency to tell communities whether arsenic-treated lumber is safe.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 2001


A measure sets a Feb. 15 deadline for the agency to tell communities whether arsenic-treated lumber is safe.

The Environmental Protection Agency will have to dramatically speed up its safety review of arsenic-treated lumber under a measure that passed Congress this week.

Communities that have wooden playgrounds could get guidance from the federal government in just three months.

The measure pushed by Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barbara Boxer of California gives the EPA a Feb. 15 deadline to tell the public whether arsenic-treated wood poses a health risk.

Nelson, Boxer and Clinton put the provision into an EPA spending bill, and it's now awaiting President Bush's signature. Bush is likely to sign the spending bill, which includes budgets for several other agencies as well as the EPA.

"At least we've got something etched in stone now, when the president signs the law," Nelson said. "I don't want to hear any more excuses from the EPA. We've had enough of that. The county commissions and city councils don't know what to do. The whole point is to try to give them some certainty as to whether these playgrounds should remain open."

The EPA was scheduled to review the pesticide that is in pressure-treated wood, chromated copper arsenate, in 2006. But after tests in Florida and elsewhere revealed that arsenic is leaking from the boards into back yards and playgrounds, the EPA announced it would speed up the review and finish it by late summer or fall of 2002.

The EPA also plans to fan out across the country in the next several months, taking samples at playgrounds from coast to coast.

Now, those deadlines are significantly shortened.

On Friday, EPA spokesman Dave Deegan said he hadn't yet seen the provision that Congress passed.

"I'm sure we'll do everything we can to comply with Congress' request," Deegan said.

The fast-track review was applauded by the wood treatment industry and retail giant Home Depot.

"It's time to get a ruling on this," Home Depot spokesman Don Harrison said.

Mel Pine, spokesman for the American Wood Preservers Institute, an industry trade group, said, "We support the scientific process being played out free of political pressure."

"We think Congress should be informed, and the public should be informed, of what the current science is," Pine said.

Indeed, for local officials, the debate over arsenic-treated wood has been frustrating. If playground soil has arsenic in it, what's the risk? And how much arsenic can kids pick up by touching the wood?

State environmental departments give differing answers. Scientific studies offer different conclusions.

Nelson said Boxer and Clinton also have expressed frustration. Playgrounds in New York and California have been shut down, as well as in Florida.

"We just need to get some final word on this," Nelson said.

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