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EPA gets poor grade on keeping drinking water clean

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Kimberly Hirai | Aug 18, 2011 08:00 AM

The Environmental Protection Agency was recently reprimanded for its regulation of drinking water and the selection process it uses to select candidates for contaminant regulation. On the bright side, the agency is trying to ensure rural water systems pass muster.

The Government Accountability Office just gave EPA officials a scolding for their inabilityto assess which communities aren't keeping their drinking water clean.

Water woes 1

A July 19 GAO report says the federal agency can't identify municipalities with the most serious compliance problems when it comes to drinking water violations.

Polluted drinking water is no small problem: The GAO report states there are 4.3 to 11.7 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness each year due to contaminated drinking water.  And exposure to contaminants like arsenic in drinking water over time can increase risk of cancer in addition to skin issues and circulatory problems.

It's not all the EPA's fault—the report says states underreport health and monitoring violations, making it difficult for the agency to determine where enforcement of water quality laws needs to take place.

In 14 states audited by the EPA in 2009 and reviewed by GAO, 26 percent of health-based violations, 778 total, went unreported or were inaccurate. Eighty-four percent of monitoring violations, about 54,800, also went unreported or were inaccurate.

Monitoring violations can include failing to post a public notice for a health violation on time, not completing mandatory monitoring of water conditions or submitting late results to the state.

A survey of agency and state water officials and Association of State Drinking Water Administrators showed the typical reasons for states' inability to report accurate data about drinking water violations-- lack of funds, limited staff and lack of training.

State and agency officials blame each other for many of their lapses in water quality monitoring. One EPA official said a state may sympathize with a water system by not issuing a violation if a water-quality lapse didn't cause a health problem. The states fired back, saying the agency owes them better training for monitoring water systems for compliance whenever the EPA makes changes to regulations.

But that's not the only bad news for the Environmental Protection Agency when it comes to drinking water regulation.

The accountability office also slapped EPA's hand in another July report on its inability to identify new drinking water contaminants that should be monitored. The agency currently monitors 89 contaminants in drinking water, requiring that water systems either remain below certain levels or treated to mitigate those toxins.

The office said EPA lacked a way to prioritize its possible designations to regulate contaminants based on potential impact to public health.  It decided not to regulate 20 contaminants based on readily-available data rather than on contaminant occurrence and related health effects, which could indicate those contaminants of greatest public health concern.

The agency's botched regulation decision on perchlorate garnered additional criticism.

Perchlorate, which occurs in rocket fuel, fireworks and other explosives, can impair cognitive capabilities and development in fetuses, infants and children. An EPA press release said between 5 million and 17 million people could have drinking water containing the dangerous chemical.

The agency first turned the chemical down for regulation in 2008 but later took a second look, putting it on the list of drinking water contaminants in February 2011.

The office reprimanded the EPA for deciding to not regulate perchlorate in 2008 based on a health assessment that did not undergo normal internal scientific review, among other nonstandard practices.

Within the bad news there's some good. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency recently signed a memorandum of agreement to help rural water systems, whose pipes are aging and have only trickles of money and proper management staff.

The agencies agreed to help communities meet drinking and clean water regulations through information sharing, and training on water rules and possible project funding to meet national standards, such as arsenic regulations.

Though America’s water supply is considered one of the safest in the world, management between states and federal agencies, a longtime battle, continues.

Kimberly Hirai is an intern at High Country News.

Image courtesy Flickr user Allie Holzman.

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