EPA Publishes Final Guidelines for Operator Certification

The Environmental Protection Agency has published final guidelines setting minimum standards for the development, implementation and enforcement of operator certification programs for public water systems.

The Environmental Protection Agency has published final guidelines setting minimum standards for the development, implementation and enforcement of operator certification programs for public water systems.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Amendments of 1996 required that the guidelines be published in the Federal Register by February 1999. In February 2001, states that have not implemented an operator certification program that meets the federal guidelines could lose 20 percent of their Drinking Water State Revolving Fund allotment.

EPA developed the guidelines with the help of two Working Groups and a series of public meetings over the last several years. The main goal of the operator certification program is to protect public health and to increase consumer confidence in the safety of U.S. drinking water.

The guidelines represent only minimum standards, and EPA has included a clause that will prevent states with strong certification programs from backsliding to the federal level. EPA will not approve the program of any state that reduces its standards below the level that existed 12 months prior to Feb. 5, 1999, unless the reduction can be justified by the state and is approved by EPA.

Each states operator certification program must include the essential elements of nine baseline standards established by EPA. Several of the baseline standards also include highly recommended elements that EPA would like to see included to expand and improve on the programs.

Each state program must meet the following requirements:

  • Classify all community and nontransient noncommunity water systems based on indicators of potential health risk, and develop specific operator certification and renewal requirements for each level of classification. Indicators of potential health risk may include the complexity, size and source water for treatment facilities, and the complexity and size of distribution systems.

  • Require owners of all public water systems to place the direct supervision of their water system, including each treatment facility and/or distribution system, under the responsible charge of an operator(s) holding a valid certification equal to or greater than the classification of the treatment facility and/or distribution system.

  • Require that the operator(s) in responsible charge must hold a valid certification equal to or greater than the classification of their water system, including each treatment facility and distribution system, as determined by the state.

  • Require that all operating personnel making process control/system integrity decisions about water quality or quantity that affect public health be certified.

  • Require that a designated certified operator be available for each operating shift.

Operator Qualifications

States must require the following for an operator to become certified:

Operator Qualifications

  • Take and pass an exam that demonstrates that the operator has the necessary skills, knowledge, ability and judgment as appropriate for the classification. All exam questions must be validated.

Operator Qualifications

  • Have a high school diploma or a general equivalency diploma (GED). States may allow experience and/or relevant training to be substituted for a high school diploma or GED. Education, training, or experience that is used to meet this requirement for any class of certification may not be used to meet the experience requirement.

Operator Qualifications

  • Have the defined minimum amount of on-the-job experience for each appropriate level of certification. The amount of experience required increases with each classification level. Post high school education may be substituted for experience. Credit may be given for experience in a related field (e.g., wastewater).

Grandparenting

Aware that there are many competent small system operators that may not meet the initial requirements to become certified, EPA will allow states to include a grandparenting clause in their certification programs, based on factors such as system compliance history, operator experience and knowledge, system complexity, and lack of treatment.

Grandparenting

Grandparenting provision must include the following requirements:

Grandparenting

  • Grandparenting is permitted only for existing operators in charge of existing systems which, because of state law changes to meet the guidelines, must for the first time have a certified operator.

Grandparenting

  • The system owner must apply for grandparenting for the operator(s) in responsible charge within two years of the effective date of the states regulation.

Grandparenting

  • The certification for the grandparented operator must be site specific and non-transferable to other operators.

Grandparenting

  • After an operator is grandparented, he or she must, within some time period specified by the state, meet all requirements to obtain certification renewal, including the payment of any necessary fees, acquiring necessary training to meet the renewal requirements, and demonstrating the skills, knowledge, ability and judgment for that classification.

Grandparenting

  • If the classification of the plant or distribution system changes to a higher level, then the grandparented certification will no longer be valid.

Grandparenting

  • If a grandparented operator chooses to work for a different water system, he or she must meet the initial certification requirements for that system.

Enforcement

The state agency with primary enforcement responsibility for the Public Water System Supervision (PWSS) Program must have regulations that meet the requirements of EPAs guidelines and must require that the systems they supervise meet the state operator certification requirements. In nonprimacy states, the governor must determine which state agency will have this responsibility. States must have appropriate enforcement capabilities, for example: administrative orders, bilateral compliance agreements, criminal or civil administrative penalties, and/or stipulated penalties.

Enforcement

States also must have the ability to revoke or suspend operator certifications or take other appropriate enforcement action for operator misconduct. Examples of operator misconduct may include: fraud, falsification of application, falsification of operating records, gross negligence in operation, incompetence, and/or failure to use reasonable care or judgment in the performance of duties.

Certification Renewal

As part of their certification renewal programs, states must establish training requirements based on the level of certification held by the operator. States must also have a fixed cycle of renewal, not to exceed three years.

Certification Renewal

A states program also must meet the following requirements:

Certification Renewal

  • The State must require an individual to recertify if the individual fails to renew or qualify for renewal within two years of the date that the certificate expired.

Certification Renewal

  • States must identify specific renewal requirements for grandparented operators to ensure that they possess the knowledge, skills, ability and judgment to properly operate the system.

Certification Renewal

  • States must have a process for recertification of individuals whose certification has expired for a period exceeding two years. This process must include: review of the individuals experience and training, and reexamination. The state may develop more stringent requirements for recertification for individuals whose certificates have expired, been revoked, or been suspended.

Resources Needed To Implement the Program

States must provide sufficient resources to adequately fund and sustain the operator certification program. Components include, but are not limited to: staff, data management, testing, enforcement, administration, and training approval. EPA recommends that states establish a dedicated fund that is self-sufficient.

Stakeholder Involvement

According to EPA, stakeholder involvement is important to the public health objectives of the program. It helps to ensure the relevancy and validity of the program, and the confidence of all interested parties.

Stakeholder Involvement

States must include ongoing stakeholder involvement in the revision and operations of their operator certification programs. Public comment on rule revisions is not adequate stakeholder involvement. A stakeholder board or advisory committee is strongly recommended.

Stakeholder Involvement

Examples of stakeholders may include: operators, environmental/ public health groups, the general public, consumer groups, technical assistance providers, utility managers, trainers, etc.

Program Review

States must perform reviews of their operator certification programs. EPA recommends that states perform periodic internal reviews and occasional external/peer reviews. Examples of items to review include: regulations, exam items for relevancy and validity, compliance, enforcement, budget and staffing, training relevancy, training needs through examination performance, and data management system.

Program Review

The submittal of operator certification programs to EPA by states must include the following:

Program Review

  • The State Attorney Generals certification, or certification from delegated counsel, that the state has the legal authority to implement the program requiring the certification of operators of all community and nontransient noncommunity water systems and to require that the systems comply with the appropriate requirements of the program;

Program Review

  • A full description and explanation of how the states operator certification program complies with or is substantially equivalent to the requirements of these guidelines;

Program Review

  • A copy of the State operator certification regulations. All annual program submittals subsequent to the initial submittal must include documentation and evaluation of ongoing program implementation. They also must include a new State Attorney Generals certification, or certification from delegated counsel, if changes were made to the regulations or statutes.

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