EPA Watchdog Unit to Examine Drinking Water Monitoring

Procedures to improve the Environmental Protection Agency's handling of state drinking water testing will be the focus of an internal investigation.

By Patrick Crow

Procedures to improve the Environmental Protection Agency’s handling of state drinking water testing will be the focus of an internal investigation.

Kathlene Butler, director of the Water Issues Office of Program Evaluation, announced the inquiry, which was scheduled as part of the Office of the Inspector General’s 2016 annual plan.

The review is significant in light of the public and congressional complaints about how EPA handled state drinking water testing before the Flint, Mich., crisis became public.

Although EPA officials knew about the lead contamination, they left it to Michigan regulators, who had the legal responsibility of testing drinking water and enforcing water safety laws, to inform the public about the problem.

The EPA watchdog office will examine drinking water testing results at both EPA headquarters and at state and regional EPA offices, assessing “who collects drinking water samples for the states in each region.”

“Our objectives are to evaluate how the EPA ensures that Safe Drinking Water Act primacy states monitor and report drinking water sampling results from public water systems, and to determine whether the EPA can improve its oversight of state drinking water sampling programs,” Butler said.

The House of Representatives clearly thinks procedural improvements at the EPA are overdue. Last February, the House voted 416-2 to require EPA to notify the public about high lead levels in drinking water if state or local officials have failed to do so. So far, the Senate has not acted on the legislation.

Reps. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) introduced the Safe Drinking Water Act Improved Compliance Awareness Act. The bill was cosponsored by the rest of the Michigan House delegation.

Upton, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, said the failure to inform the public about the lead in Flint’s water was inexcusable. “Our bipartisan legislation will ensure consumers are not kept in the dark and makes certain the EPA fulfills their fundamental duty to warn the public of high lead levels,” he said.

Rep. Kildee agreed that the public should be immediately informed about unacceptable levels of contaminants in drinking water. “The thing that makes me most upset is that this crisis situation, which will last for decades in its impact, was completely avoidable,” Kildee said.

Under the Upton-Kildee legislation, EPA must advise a state or public water system concerning any problems that could threaten public health due to acute exposure. If the water system fails to notify the public within 24 hours of receiving EPA’s notice about the exceedance, then the federal agency must sound the alarm.

The bill would require community water systems, in their annual consumer confidence reports, to include a definition of an “action level,” the point at which the concentration of a particular contaminant would trigger a requirement for the system to take additional steps to control it.

And the legislation would mandate that EPA establish a strategic plan for conducting targeted outreach, education, technical assistance, and risk communication to populations affected by lead in the public water system.

Other House congressmen are concerned about schoolchildren being exposed to lead in drinking water fountains.

Reps. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) introduced a bill last July to help schools replace drinking water fountains that have lead components. It would authorize $25 million over five years for a new grant program. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) also introduced a bill addressing lead contamination in school drinking water.

Any of these House bills theoretically could be attached to other must-pass legislation as Congress wraps up its work this fall.

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 the past 15 years. Crow is now an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer

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