In the Dark on Drinking Water Violations and Contaminants


In July, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released two reports that evaluated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) performance on protecting America’s drinking water. The reports highlight EPA’s long-standing problems with collecting accurate data on violations and identifying and regulating dangerous contaminants. Should EPA fail to address these issues, Americans' health could be in jeopardy.

Though drinking water in the United States is among the world’s safest, threats to public health, including waterborne disease, still occur. Moreover, contaminants such as chlorine, arsenic, lead, and copper are often found in drinking water. Long-term exposure to these substances can cause stomach discomfort, eye or nose irritation, anemia, liver or kidney damage, cancer, and even death. Among infants and children, the threats include delays to physical and mental development and a serious illness known as blue-baby syndrome, which may lead to death.

States are Underreporting Drinking Water Violations to the EPA

In Drinking Water: Unreliable State Data Limit EPA's Ability to Target Enforcement Priorities and Communicate Water Systems' Performance, released on July 19, the GAO found that states are significantly underreporting drinking water violations to the EPA. The resulting incomplete and misleading information hinders the agency’s ability to effectively enforce rules aimed at protecting human health.

The GAO reviewed EPA audits from 2007 and 2009 for its report. The 2009 data revealed that states either failed to report or inaccurately reported 26 percent of health-related violations and 84 percent of monitoring violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The 2007 data underscored similar missing and inaccurate reporting, indicating that the problem is not just a single year of poor performance. The report also notes that “state-reported data underreported the percentage of water systems with violations against which the states have taken enforcement actions.”

According to the GAO, numerous factors contributed to the underreporting, including "inadequate training, staffing, and guidance, and inadequate funding to conduct those activities." The study confirms that, in the past, the EPA has conducted audits, identifying state inefficiencies, but that the EPA discontinued those audits in 2010 due to fiscal constraints.

The GAO offered four recommendations to improve states’ compliance with the SDWA:

  1. Resume routine data verification audits
  2. Work with the states to establish a goal, or goals, for the completeness and accuracy of data on monitoring violations
  3. Evaluate EPA’s performance measures for community water systems to more clearly communicate the public health risk posed by noncompliance
  4. Work with the EPA regions and states to assess the progress and any barriers in implementation

EPA partially agreed with the first and fourth recommendations, disagreed with the third, and neither agreed nor disagreed with the second recommendation.

The GAO report was compiled in response to a request from Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA), Edward Markey (D-MA), and John Dingell (D-MI) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Following the report’s release, Markey stated:

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.

EPA Isn't Adequately Regulating Drinking Water Contaminants

Released on July 12, the second report, Safe Drinking Water Act: EPA Should Improve Implementation of Requirements on Whether to Regulate Additional Contaminants, focused specifically on unregulated contaminants. The study found "systemic limitations" with the EPA’s ability to regulate contaminants. The GAO concluded that the EPA does not have criteria, including internal guidance and policies, to identify and regulate contaminants of greatest risk to public health.

A major, long-term problem uncovered by the study was the agency’s failure to properly assess the risks of contaminants on children’s health. For example, in 2003 and 2008, EPA examined 20 contaminants and decided that drinking water regulations were not needed for any of the 20. In 11 out of those 20 decisions, the agency’s Office of Water failed to consider separate risks to children’s health. The report also notes that the Office of Water had not developed any guidance on considering the risks of drinking water contaminants on children.

The study also noted how long it took EPA to regulate perchlorate. Perchlorate, which has been found in water, soil, and sediment in 45 states, is a component of rocket fuel. When it contaminates drinking water and is injested, it can affect the thyroid gland, leading to neurological problems in fetuses and delays in physical and mental development in infants. In 1998, the agency warned that perchlorate could require regulation, but it was not until 2008 that the agency made a formal decision on the chemical, opting not to pursue regulation. The EPA reversed this decision and finalized a perchlorate standard in February 2011, making it the first contaminant regulated under the SDWA since it was amended in 1996. The GAO found that EPA’s process and analysis of perchlorate were "atypical" and "lacked transparency." Further, the agency lacked independence in developing and using scientific data.

Democratic members of the House and Senate, as well as environmental groups, blamed the Bush administration for manipulating science to justify its 2008 decision not to regulate perchlorate. Waxman stated, "GAO's report raises serious questions about whether the Bush administration manipulated scientific findings and downplayed the risks of perchlorate exposure on sensitive subpopulations, including pregnant women and children." Also, having obtained documents from FOIA requests and lawsuits against the White House, the Department of Defense, and EPA, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) discovered that the Bush administration downplayed the chemical’s risks to public health in efforts to prevent the EPA from regulating perchlorate in drinking water in 2005.

The actions of the previous administration notwithstanding, the GAO found that systemic faults contribute to the weakness in EPA’s testing program for unregulated contaminants, including poor management decisions and program delays. The GAO provided 17 recommendations to address these long-term problems at the EPA, including:

  1. Developing criteria to identify contaminants that pose the greatest health risk
  2. Improving its unregulated contaminants testing program
  3. Developing policies or guidance to interpret broad statutory criteria

The report notes that the EPA has only agreed with two recommendations, contending that "developing guidance and taking the other recommended actions are not needed." GAO maintains that the EPA needs to adopt all of the recommendations to better ensure safe drinking water for the American people.

The report was highlighted by Waxman and Markey, along with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA).