EPA not ready for bioterror, inspector general warns

The BioWatch program set up by the Bush Administration to detect biowarfare agents in cities is behind the technological curve for air sampling, the agency internal watchdog office reports. Another report points to deficiencies in source water protection programs. The agency also lost a California suit that will require ships to meet Clean Water Act rules regarding ballast water. And nine Northeast states filed suit on new mercury emission rules for power plants released March 15...

Apr 1st, 2005

WASHINGTON, DC, April 1, 2005 (Staff & Wire Reports) -- The BioWatch program set up by the Bush Administration to detect biowarfare agents in cities is behind the technological curve for air sampling, and is not adequately prepared to assist with consequence management plans in the event of a biological agent release, the EPA Inspector General's Office said in a new report released March 23.

Another report put out Monday also pointed to deficiencies in Source Water Protection Programs (SWPPs) as well.

"Source water assessments are being used by some states to improve the overall drinking water protection program by prioritizing protection efforts and program resources, and by assistance organizations in education and outreach efforts in developing and implementing protection measures. However, at the local level, assessment use is limited," the March 28 report stated.

The Inspector General's Office recommended the Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for water:
-- Issue a public statement to re-affirm that the Source Water Assessment and Protection Programs are a priority for EPA.
-- Encourage States to target assessments not only to utilities, but also to local governments, councils, planners, building and zoning officials, and other stakeholders.
-- Provide guidance to States on how to leverage financial and technical resources from other EPA programs, partners, and stakeholders.
-- Continue to improve cooperation and coordination between States and EPA assistance contractors.
-- Work with Regions and States to (1) integrate environmental programs and (2) determine how best to disseminate locally-applicable best practices for contaminant source management and motivation.

EPA generally agreed with our findings and recommendations and in some cases
has taken actions to address them.

Early warning system
Meanwhile, BioWatch is a "detect to treat" network intended to detect biological agents within 36 hours of release with a comprehensive protocol of monitoring and laboratory analysis, so that there is time for federal, state and local officials to determine emergency response, medical care, and consequence management needs.

The report released March 23 by Inspector General Nikki Tinsley's office said, "We found that EPA did not provide adequate oversight of the sampling operations to ensure quality assurance guidance was adhered to, potentially affecting the quality of the samples taken."

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funds and oversees the BioWatch program while relying on the assistance and expertise of the EPA and other agencies.

DHS uses the EPA to award and manage cooperative agreements to state and local air monitoring agencies to collect filter samples. EPA's designated responsibilities include a crucial part of the BioWatch program -- the sampling operations.

These operations include monitor deployment, site security, oversight, and assessing monitor technology.

The internal agency watchdog said the EPA did complete a technology assessment of the existing BioWatch monitors, but also "needs to be involved in assessing technologies that are more reliable and timely, and reduce costs."

A lack of consequence management planning was highlighted when a biological agent was detected in Houston in 2003, the Inspector General said, and at the time of this review an improved plan was still not complete.

The Inspector General recommended that the EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation take responsibility for identifying and testing alternative technologies that are more reliable, timely, and efficient for detecting biological agents, and ensure the agency is adequately prepared to assist with consequence management plans in the event of a biological agent release.

In response to the critical report, the EPA said in a statement that the federal government "continues to make substantial improvements to the program -- from the quantity of monitors to security at monitoring sites to quality assurance activities. These improvements effectively resolve the concerns raised by EPA's Inspector General."

While declining to name the cities due to national security concerns, the EPA did say that as of last month, the agency had worked with every BioWatch city "to ensure that the monitoring equipment at every site is functioning properly, is secure, and is able to effectively detect biological agents in the event they were released."

"And we know the program is working," the agency said, "since its inception, the BioWatch team, with the support of state and local public health officials, has sited and continues to site hundreds of monitors across the nation that have successfully yielded tens of thousands of samples.

Monitors are being deployed "on an extremely tight schedule because of rising security concerns," the EPA said and assured the public that the agency "is meeting the requirements of the Department of Homeland Security."

Online access
The EPA inspector general report on the BioWatch program can be found at: "EPA Needs to Fulfill Its Designated Responsibilities to Ensure Effective BioWatch Program."

The March 28 report, "Source Water Assessment and Protection Programs Show Initial Promise, But Obstacles Remain," is also available at the EPA Inspector General's website: www.epa.gov/oigearth/.

In other news
The San Jose Mercury News reported today that a San Francisco federal judge ruled the EPA can't exempt ship operators when they release ballast water -- a decision that will force ships to comply with the Clean Water Act when they dump ballast water. Under the Bush Administration, the agency declined to intervene, saying the Coast Guard was a more appropriate enforcement arm. The agency will decide within a month or two whether to appeal the ruling which was considered big victory for environmental groups.

Also, the Associated Press reported that New Jersey filed suit against the federal government Tuesday, leading a nine-state challenge of new rules it says fail to protect children and expectant mothers from dangers posed by power plants' mercury emissions.
The suit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, criticizes rules announced March 15 by the EPA as failing to do all the Clean Air Act requires. Other states in the suit are California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York and Vermont.

NOTE: Information above on the BioWatch program was drawn from a March 28 report at the Environmental News Service website: www.ens-newswire.com.

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