Great Lakes Initiative:

EPA Needs to Better Ensure the Complete and Consistent Implementation of Water Quality Standards

GAO-05-829: Published: Jul 27, 2005. Publicly Released: Aug 26, 2005.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

John B. Stephenson
(202) 512-6225
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

The virtual elimination of toxic pollutants in the Great Lakes is a goal shared by the United States and Canada. While some progress has been made, pollution levels remain unacceptably high. The Great Lakes Initiative (GLI) requires stringent water quality standards for many pollutants in discharges regulated by states administering National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit programs. As requested, this report examines the (1) GLI's focus and potential impact on water quality in the Great Lakes Basin, (2) status of GLI's adoption by the states and any challenges to achieving intended goals, and (3) steps taken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for ensuring full and consistent implementation of GLI and for assessing progress toward achieving its goals.

GLI has limited potential to improve overall water quality in the Great Lakes Basin because it primarily focuses on regulated point sources of pollution, while nonpoint sources, such as air deposition and agricultural runoff, are greater sources of pollution. GLI's potential impact is further limited because it allows the use of flexible implementation procedures, such as variances, whereby facilities can discharge pollutants at levels exceeding stringent GLI water quality standards. Finally, many of the chemical pollutants regulated by GLI have already been restricted or banned by EPA and have a limited presence in point source discharges. By 1998, the eight Great Lakes states had largely adopted GLI water quality standards and implementation procedures in their environmental regulations and NPDES programs. However, EPA determined that some states had failed to adopt some GLS provisions or had adopted provisions that were inconsistent with GLI and EPA promulgated rules imposing GLI standards. Wisconsin officials, however, believe that the state cannot implement standards that are not explicitly supported by state law, and disagreements with EPA over the rules remain unresolved. As a result, GLI has not been fully adopted or implemented in the state. Finally, a major challenge to fully achieving GLI's goals remains because methods for measuring many pollutants at the low levels established in GLI do not exist. Consequently, some pollutants cannot be regulated at these levels. EPA has not ensured consistent GLI implementation by the states nor has the agency taken adequate steps toward measuring progress. For example, EPA did not issue a mercury permitting strategy to promote consistent approaches to the problems posed by mercury as it stated in GLI. In the absence of a strategy, states developed permits for mercury that vary from state to state. Attempts by EPA to assess GLI's impact have been limited because of inadequate data or information that has not been gathered for determining progress on dischargers' efforts to reduce pollutants.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better ensure the full and consistent implementation of the Great Lakes Initiative and improve measures for monitoring progress toward achieving GLI's goals, the EPA Administrator should direct EPA Region 5, in coordination with Regions 2 and 3, to gather and track information that can be used to assess the progress of implementing GLI and the impact it has on reducing pollutant discharges from point sources in the Great Lakes Basin. In particular, EPA should consider collecting better information on the impact of discharger programs to minimize pollutants that are exceeding GLI standards.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Among the actions EPA has taken to gather and track information that can be used to assess the progress of Great Lakes Initiative (GLI) implementation are the tracking of permits issued with mercury limits and PMP requirements for publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) in the Great Lakes Basin, and the evaluation of permit compliance data on mercury concentrations in POTW sludge and on the quantity of sludge generated to determine sludge mercury levels for POTWs. EPA also tracks effluent quality to determine whether PMPs affect POTWs' ability to comply with water quality requirements.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the full and consistent implementation of the Great Lakes Initiative and improve measures for monitoring progress toward achieving GLI's goals, the EPA Administrator should direct EPA Region 5, in coordination with Regions 2 and 3, to ensure the GLI Clearinghouse is fully developed, maintained, and made available to the Great Lakes states to assist them in developing water quality standards for pollutants covered by GLI.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA's Great Lakes Initiative (GLI) Clearinghouse now has a database framework and web page containing criteria information and supporting data made available to EPA by the Great Lakes states.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the full and consistent implementation of the Great Lakes Initiative and improve measures for monitoring progress toward achieving GLI's goals, the EPA Administrator should direct EPA Region 5, in coordination with Regions 2 and 3, to issue a permitting strategy that ensures a more consistent approach to controlling mercury by the states.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA disagreed that it was worth devoting the resources necessary to develop a permitting strategy to improve consistency among states' efforts to control mercury emissions.

    Recommendation: The EPA Administrator should direct EPA Region 5 to increase efforts to resolve the disagreements with the State of Wisconsin over the implementation of provisions to ensure the equitable and timely implementation of GLI among all Great Lakes states.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Among the steps taken to resolve disagreements between EPA and Wisconsin are agreements between the two parties on correcting Wisconsin's Aquatic Life Criteria for copper, nickel, endrin, and selenium, and on procedures the state uses for determining whole effluent toxicity Reasonable Potential.

    Aug 11, 2014

    Jul 28, 2014

    Jul 16, 2014

    Jul 15, 2014

    Jul 9, 2014

    Jun 30, 2014

    Jun 16, 2014

    May 22, 2014

    May 21, 2014

    May 19, 2014

    Looking for more? Browse all our products here