EPA to Crack Down on Water Polluters

Water resources are gaining a higher profile in the media, thanks in part to droughts in the West and an invigorated environmental movement.

Water resources are gaining a higher profile in the media, thanks in part to droughts in the West and an invigorated environmental movement.

Over the past 30 years US water laws have focused on cleaning up traditional end-of-pipe pollution. While that’s been a reasonably successful approach, we’ve still got a long way to go. Many of the nation’s rivers, lakes and streams do not meet water quality standards, and the threat to drinking water sources is growing.

Over the past few years we seem to have lost focus on the issue of clean water, and enforcement of existing laws has taken a back seat to business -- in some parts of the country -- or been relegated to a lower priority because of confusing and sometimes contradictory court rulings.

Things are changing on the water front, however. Water resources are gaining a higher profile in the media, thanks in part to droughts in the West and an invigorated environmental movement. Water is being seen more and more as a precious commodity and the public has voiced growing concern over pharmaceuticals and other pollutants in their drinking water.

The Obama administration earlier this year announced a goal of improving access to clean and safe water. To help achieve that goal, the US Environmental Protection Agency is planning to crack down on water pollution violations, refocusing enforcement to tackle sources posing the biggest threats to water quality while intensifying civil and criminal enforcement against traditional end-of-pipe pollution.

EPA is charged with administering the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act. However, it can authorize states to assume many of the permitting and enforcement responsibilities of the NPDES permit program. Currently 45 states and the Virgin Islands have assumed NPDES authority; while EPA directly oversees five states: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Idaho and Alaska.

Part of the problem is the varying levels of enforcement across the country, with some states being much more active than others. In fact, I’ve heard it said some companies have moved their operations to “business friendly” states with lower environmental standards.

That’s got to stop. EPA must set the bar on national standards and hold all states (and itself!) accountable for meeting those standards -- and be ready to take needed action if and when the standards are not met.

As part of its Clean Water Enforcement Action Plan, EPA plans to:

· Develop more comprehensive approaches to ensure enforcement is targeted to the most serious violations and the most significant sources of pollution.

· Work with states to ensure greater consistency throughout the country with respect to compliance and water quality. Ensure that states are issuing protective permits and taking enforcement to achieve compliance and remove economic incentives to violate the law.

· Use 21st century information technology to collect, analyze and use information in new, more efficient ways and to make that information readily accessible to the public. Better tools will help federal and state regulators identify serious compliance problems quickly and take prompt actions to correct them.

You can download a PDF version of the Clean Water Enforcement Action Plan from the EPA office of Compliance and Enforcement website at http://www.epa.gov/compliance/.

JAMES LAUGHLIN, Managing Editor

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