We reported here last week about a U.S. Government Accountability Office report that found major problems with federal EPA’s inaction in regulating new drinking water contaminants over the last 15 years.
Today, the GAO offers us another example of regulatory “underreach” by state officials and by the EPA. The latest GAO report is called Drinking water: Unreliable State Data Limit EPA’s Ability to Target Enforcement Priorities and Communicate Water Systems’ Performance. It concludes:
The data states reported to EPA for measuring compliance with health and monitoring requirements of SDWA did not reliably reflect the number of health-based and monitoring violations that community water systems have committed or the status of enforcement actions.
The report was released today by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and their news release summarized the overall findings this way:
— States audited did not fully and accurately report 20 percent of the health-based drinking water violations (these refer to violations of the legal limit of contaminants allowed in drinking water) that they should have provided to EPA in 2007, and 26 percent of such violations in 2009.
— In 2009, states audited did not fully and accurately report a staggering 84 percent of drinking water monitoring violations (these consist of failures to monitor drinking water, or failures to report violations to state regulators or the public, and were found to be a predictor of health-based violations) to EPA.
— From 2002-2004, audited states did not accurately report 27 percent of the enforcement actions they took against drinking water systems to EPA. Unreliable data on enforcement actions leaves EPA with no sense of whether water systems have returned into compliance and reduces EPA’s ability to ensure that it is achieving its goal of targeting enforcement resources to systems that truly need it
— Incomplete and inaccurate data on violations hampers EPA’s ability to identify water systems with the most serious compliance problems and impedes the agency’s ability to communicate and assess its progress toward reducing public exposure to toxic chemicals in drinking water.
— EPA has in the past conducted audits that have identified state inefficiencies and poor practices and that have lead to improved data quality. However, because of funding constraints these audits have been, at least temporarily, discontinued. Additionally, EPA has not required states to take specific actions to improve data quality.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said:
GAO found that states are failing to report important safety information from EPA. Rather than slashing funding for this critical public health resource, Congress should be moving legislation to improve the reporting and policing of drinking water violations.
And Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., added:
They say that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – but when it comes to drinking water, it turns out that all too often, EPA has no idea whether it’s broke. To add to the problem, House Republicans have just proposed to cut $134 million dollars from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund Program, which provides money to states and public water systems to comply with the law and increase public health protection.
As for EPA, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said:
In order to truly improve our water quality and help our communities budget for water quality infrastructure, we must be able to accurately analyze the quality of our drinking water systems. Fighting to protect our water quality is a responsibility to the American people that I take very seriously. Unfortunately, it is clear that EPA needs to improve their data collection efforts in relation to our drinking water systems in order to hold accountable those states that are not taking their public health responsibilities seriously enough.