GAO Report Targets EPA Inaction on Drinking Water Contaminants

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has charged that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not regulated any new drinking water contaminants, with one very recent exception, since 1996 when the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended.

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has charged that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not regulated any new drinking water contaminants, with one very recent exception, since 1996 when the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, released the study. She said, “This failure has occurred despite mounting evidence of threats to public health from unregulated drinking water contaminants.”

The report identified “systemic limitations” in how EPA identifies and assesses new contaminants for regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The 1996 SDWA amendments required EPA to determine, every five years, whether additional chemicals or contaminants warrant regulation. GAO concluded that EPA lacks a clear process for identifying and prioritizing contaminants that pose the greatest public health concern, particularly for children and other sensitive subpopulations.

GAO also examined how EPA developed its 2008 preliminary determination that it did not need to regulate perchlorate. GAO concluded that the process was “atypical” and “lacked transparency.”

The study said EPA should create a formal process to consider infants and children’s unique vulnerabilities when creating drinking water safeguards and should increase the transparency of EPA’s decision-making.

In a statement, the American Water Works Association agreed EPA needs to systemically implement the SDWA to address substances that present the greatest potential for threats to public health and that more transparency is needed in the process.

“Concerning the lack of data for potential substances of concern in drinking water, AWWA has for years urged EPA to set a research agenda more closely aligned with and designed to support its regulatory agenda,” it said.

SRF Funding

The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators noted that Drinking Water State Revolving Fund grants to states were cut by $424 million in fiscal 2011 and further cuts of $136 million are proposed.

The group said, “States must receive the full and adequate funding from Congress to carry out their primary mission of protecting human health and the environment and to reach additional goals such as making improvements to data collection and reporting systems.”

Climate Change Bill

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and 11 cosponsors in the House of Representatives have filed a bill to help drinking water and wastewater utilities adapt their infrastructure to changing hydrological conditions caused by global climate change.

The bill would establish a competitive grant program at EPA to offer matching funds to utilities to ensure future sustainability of their infrastructure.

The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) and 14 other water utility and environmental organizations support the bill. Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plan to file a companion bill in the Senate.

Diane VanDe Hei, AMWA’s executive director, said, “In the decades ahead, the nation’s water and wastewater systems are expected to face a series of water quality and quantity challenges brought on by severe drought, melting snowpack, more frequent heavy precipitation events, and rising sea levels.”

She added, “AMWA has estimated that adapting to hydrological conditions brought about by climate change may cost U.S. water and wastewater systems nearly $1 trillion through 2050. This bill’s modest authorization of $50 million per year will help utilities begin addressing these needs today, while also creating thousands of jobs.”

Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported that climate change is leaving American cities open to a range of water-related vulnerabilities – from drought to sea level rise and increased rainfall – regardless of region or size.

It said climate change will impact water supplies and waterways in communities across the country, with geography often determining the specific effects.

St. Louis Enforcement

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) has agreed to make $4.7 billion of improvements to its sewer systems and treatment plants over 23 years to eliminate illegal overflows of untreated raw sewage and reduce pollution levels in urban rivers and streams.

The Department of Justice and EPA announced the settlement, which also involved the Missouri Coalition for the Environment Foundation.

Under the deal, MSD will install pollution controls, including the construction of three large storage tunnels from two to nine miles long, and expand capacity at two treatment plants. EPA said these actions, and ones that MSD has already implemented, will eliminate nearly 13 billion gallons per year of overflows into nearby streams and rivers.

MSD will develop and implement a comprehensive plan to eliminate more than 200 illegal discharge points within its sanitary sewer system and will develop programs to improve sewer system performance and to eliminate overflows. The settlement requires MSD to spend $100 million on large scale green infrastructure projects to control wet weather sewer overflows.

MSD’s sewer system collects and treats wastewater from a population of 1.4 million in nearly all of St. Louis County. It covers more than 525 square miles, and includes seven wastewater treatment plants, 294 pumping stations and more than 9,630 miles of sewer lines, making it the fourth largest sewer system in the nation.

In other Washington news:

• EPA has named Nicholas DiPasquale to head its Chesapeake Bay Program. He is a former secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and recently was a consultant with Duffield Associates in Wilmington, Del.

• Ken Kopocis, who has been named to head EPA’s Office of Water, encountered no opposition at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in July. He is a counsel for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and previously was on the staff of the Senate environment panel.

• Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) has filed a bill to encourage water efficiency in energy development. It would establish programs to demonstrate both water and energy efficiencies available from new technologies.

• The Department of Agriculture said 14 Alaskan communities, many with populations that are predominately native, will receive $23.6 million through the Rural Alaska Village Grant program for water quality improvement projects.

• EPA said the Jersey City, N.J. Municipal Utilities Authority will spend more than $52 million to upgrade and repair its combined sewer system, in addition to paying a $375,000 civil penalty. EPA said the authority had released untreated sewage into the Hackensack River, Hudson River, Newark Bay and Penhorn Creek.

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