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GAO: Drinking Water Safety Data Unreliable

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Three top House Democrats today released a report indicating that audits of many states show that drinking water violations have been grossly under-reported or misreported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), calling into question the current safety status of drinking water in communities across America. The report was conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and released by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Under the main federal law that protects drinking water, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), most states collect and review data from community water systems, determine if violations have occurred, take enforcement action when necessary and report all violations and actions to EPA. EPA then uses this data to identify water systems that have problems meeting the health standards for drinking water, so that enforcement efforts can be directed towards those systems with the most significant issues.

However, using results of audits EPA conducted in 2007 and 2009, GAO found that states underreported or misreported hundreds of violations of drinking water standards. In 2007, an audit of fourteen states (Ark., Ariz., Ga., Ill., Kan., Md., Minn., N.D., Nev., R.I., S.C., Utah, Va., Wash.), as well as Puerto Rico, the Navajo Nation, and 3 EPA Regions, indicated that an estimated 543 health-based drinking water violations (20 percent of the total) that should have been reported to the EPA either went unreported or were inaccurately reported.

In 2009, an audit of fourteen states (Calif., Conn., Del., Fla., Hawaii, Ind., Mich., N.C., Neb., N.J., N.M., Ore., Tenn., Vt.) indicated that an estimated 778 health-based drinking water violations (26 percent of the total) that should have been reported to the EPA either went unreported or were inaccurately reported.

Because of the unreliable or incomplete data, the report says that the EPA's ability to identify water systems with the most serious problems complying with drinking water safety standards is compromised.

"GAO found that states are failing to report important safety information from EPA," said Rep. Waxman, Ranking Member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. "Rather than slashing funding for this critical public health resource, Congress should be moving legislation to improve the reporting and policing of drinking water violations."

"They say that if it ain't broke, don't fix it -- but when it comes to drinking water, it turns out that all too often, EPA has no idea whether it's broke," said Rep. Markey, Ranking Member of the Natural Resources Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. "To add to the problem, House Republicans have just proposed to cut $134 million dollars from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund Program, which provides money to states and public water systems to comply with the law and increase public health protection."

"In order to truly improve our water quality and help our communities budget for water quality infrastructure, we must be able to accurately analyze the quality of our drinking water systems," said Rep. Dingell. "Fighting to protect our water quality is a responsibility to the American people that I take very seriously. Unfortunately, it is clear that EPA needs to improve their data collection efforts in relation to our drinking water systems in order to hold accountable those states that are not taking their public health responsibilities seriously enough."

The GAO report, which can be found here and available for download below, identified significant problems with the manner in which states collect and report this data to EPA, including:

* States audited did not fully and accurately report 20 percent of the health-based drinking water violations (these refer to violations of the legal limit of contaminants allowed in drinking water) that they should have provided to EPA in 2007, and 26 percent of such violations in 2009.
* In 2009, states audited did not fully and accurately report a staggering 84 percent of drinking water monitoring violations (these consist of failures to monitor drinking water, or failures to report violations to state regulators or the public, and were found to be a predictor of health-based violations) to EPA.
* From 2002-2004, audited states did not accurately report 27 percent of the enforcement actions they took against drinking water systems to EPA. Unreliable data on enforcement actions leaves EPA with no sense of whether water systems have returned into compliance and reduces EPA's ability to ensure that it is achieving its goal of targeting enforcement resources to systems that truly need it
* Incomplete and inaccurate data on violations hampers EPA's ability to identify water systems with the most serious compliance problems and impedes the agency's ability to communicate and assess its progress toward reducing public exposure to toxic chemicals in drinking water.
* EPA has in the past conducted audits that have identified state inefficiencies and poor practices and that have lead to improved data quality. However, because of funding constraints these audits have been, at least temporarily, discontinued. Additionally, EPA has not required states to take specific actions to improve data quality.

Last week, Reps. Waxman and Markey along with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) released another report by the GAO related to EPA's implementation of the SDWA that found that EPA has not made a determination to regulate any new drinking water contaminants, with one recent exception, since 1996. That report revealed that during the Bush administration an unusual process was used to justify a decision to not regulate the chemical perchlorate in drinking water. The report also found "systemic limitations" in how EPA identifies new contaminants for regulation.


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