An Overhaul for Water Rules Enforcement

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• EPA looks at three-prong approach to more effective regulation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intends to compel greater compliance with Clean Water Act (CWA) regulations.

In testimony Oct. 15 before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, “The time is long overdue for EPA to reexamine its approach to Clean Water Act enforcement.” She was testifying before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

She said the agency is considering enforcement changes that would improve water quality, build stronger ties between the agency and the states, and provide citizens better data on the quality of their water.

Jackson ordered EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to begin developing the plan last, after she had seen data showing that water quality was low in many parts of the nation. She said another challenge was that EPA’s regulated universe has expanded from 100,000 pollution sources to include over a million non-point sources – such as animal feed lots and stormwater runoff.

The agency’s latest approach would, one, focus enforcement on the greatest water-quality threats, including pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations, sewer overflows, and runoff from industrial facilities, construction sites, and urban streets.

Second, it plans to work with states to improve national enforcement consistency. In their permitting and enforcement actions, states would put more emphasis on removing economic incentives to violate the law.

And, third, federal and state regulators would use updated information technology to identify, analyze and react 

to serious compliance problems quickly. Already posting compliance data online for public review, the agency eventually would require water quality reports to be filed electronically.

Committee chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) said, “Some states and EPA regions have abysmal records of significant noncompliance, and a lack of effective response to these.”

The New York Times quoted an agency official as saying where states fail to act, EPA may reverse permits and step in to enforce existing rules. It also reported the likely focus of increased federal oversight includes mining companies, large livestock farms, municipal wastewater treatment plants and construction companies operating sites where polluted stormwater runs off into nearby lakes and rivers.

Witnesses from the Government Accountability Office and EPA’s Inspector General Office agreed. They testified that inconsistent enforcement, disorganization, poor data, and poor planning had stymied regulatory efforts.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), a committee member, said, “It is nearly impossible to determine the effectiveness of federal and state efforts to protect water quality from point sources of pollution. Federal and state data on these efforts are fragmented at best, and completely inadequate at worst.

Later, Environment America reported that industrial facilities dumped 232 million pounds of toxic chemicals into American waterways in 2007. The study, which drew from the government’s Toxic Release Inventory data, said 1.5 million pounds of the chemicals have been linked to cancer in humans. The greatest amounts of cancer-causing chemical discharges went into the Ohio River, the Catawba River in the Carolinas, and the Tennessee River. Pulp and paper mills and coal-fired power plants were the largest dischargers of the chemicals.

Noting related studies and recent investigative reports, Rep. Oberstar responded, “The fact many industrial facilities are exploiting the system and using the nation’s waterways as toxic dumping grounds is nothing less than a public health crisis.”


 

About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for more than 10 years. Crow is now a Houston, TX-based freelance writer.

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