Drinking Water:

Unreliable State Data Limit EPA's Ability to Target Enforcement Priorities and Communicate Water Systems' Performance

GAO-11-381: Published: Jun 17, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 19, 2011.

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The nation's drinking water is among the safest in the world, but contamination has occurred, causing illnesses and even deaths. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authorized most states, territories, and tribes to take primary responsibility for ensuring that community water systems provide safe water. EPA needs complete and accurate data on systems' compliance with SDWA to conduct oversight. GAO was asked to assess the (1) quality of the state data EPA uses to measure compliance with health and monitoring requirements of the act and the status of enforcement efforts, (2) ways in which data quality could affect EPA's management of the drinking water program, and (3) actions EPA and the states have been taking to improve data quality. GAO analyzed EPA audits of state data done in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and surveyed EPA and state officials to obtain their views on factors that have affected data quality and steps that could improve it.

The data states reported to EPA for measuring compliance with health and monitoring requirements of SDWA did not reliably reflect the number of health-based and monitoring violations that community water systems have committed or the status of enforcement actions. Using data from the 14 states EPA audited in 2009, GAO estimates that those 14 states did not report or inaccurately reported 26 percent of the health-based violations that should have been reported and 84 percent of the monitoring violations that should have been reported. GAO's findings were consistent with the results of prior EPA audits. In addition, according to EPA headquarters and regional officials GAO interviewed and surveyed, state-reported data underreported the percentage of water systems with violations against which the states have taken enforcement actions. Survey respondents and other officials reported that numerous factors contribute to errors in reported data on violations and enforcement, including inadequate training, staffing, and guidance, and inadequate funding to conduct those activities. Unreported health-based and monitoring violations and incomplete enforcement data limit EPA's ability to identify water systems with the most serious compliance problems and ensure that it is achieving its goal of targeting for enforcement those systems with the most serious compliance problems. Specifically, incomplete and inaccurate data on both violations and enforcement actions affect a scoring tool EPA and the states are using to rank systems for enforcement actions. In addition, unreliable data quality impedes EPA's ability to monitor and report progress toward a strategic objective of reducing exposure to contaminants in drinking water. For example, EPA's 2011 national program guidance contains a performance measure for the number and percentage of systems with certain repeated health-based violations, but EPA's ability to reliably use this type of measure requires complete and accurate data on violations. Because of unreported violations data, EPA may not be able to report accurate performance information on systems with these violations. EPA and the states have collaborated over many years to identify and address the causes of incomplete and inaccurate violations data, but those efforts have not been fully successful, according to EPA and state officials GAO surveyed. EPA's efforts have included (1) conducting audits--discontinued in 2010 because of funding constraints--to determine the completeness and accuracy of the violations data states reported to EPA, (2) establishing three work groups to address data management and quality, and (3) urging EPA regions and states to use data management tools the agency has developed. However, EPA has encouraged but not required that its regions or the states take specific actions that could improve data quality. EPA's 2010 drinking water strategy calls for, among other things, an increase in shared data between the agency and the states. EPA also plans to redesign its drinking water data system to provide it with greater access to, and oversight of, the states' determinations of SDWA violations. GAO is making recommendations to improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of SDWA and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate data on compliance and enforcement. EPA partially agreed with two of the recommendations, disagreed with one, and neither agreed nor disagreed with one. GAO believes that EPA needs to implement all of the recommendations to improve its ability to oversee SDWA.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: After discontinuing its data verification audits in 2010, EPA did resume its audits in 2011 and 2012. However, it was able to conduct only 5 and 7 audits respectively in those two years, a significant reduction from its average of about 17 between 2007 and 2009. In addition, EPA reported to us in April 2013 that it had no plans for audits in 2013 due to resource constraints. EPA said that, in lieu of contractor-supported data verification audits, it is developing a protocol that its regional offices can use to conduct on-site reviews as resources allow. In April 2015, EPA indicated that its Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water (OGWDW) has not been able to resume data verifications on a national basis due to resource limitations. Instead, OGWDW told us that it developed a protocol for Regions to use when conducting data verifications. The final protocol and training on its use were finalized last year. In 2014, two data verifications were performed using the released protocol. EPA reported to GAO in September 2015 it will complete three file reviews in fiscal year 2015 for Kansas, Louisiana and California. EPA plans to build upon the experiences and lessons learned during file reviews conducted in 2015, in an effort to increase the number of file reviews conducted. With regard to our recommendation that EPA's data verification audits include an evaluation of the quality of data on enforcement actions, EPA reported to us in September 2015 that the file review protocol that OGWDW developed for PWSS does not include an enforcement section because the office lacked the expertise in this subject matter. However, the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA)does have its own procedures that they use to conduct their own reviews. According to OGWDW, half of the file reviews conducted so far have included the OECA enforcement team.

    Recommendation: To improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance, the Administrator of EPA should resume data verification audits to routinely evaluate the quality of selected drinking water data on health-based and monitoring violations that the states provide to EPA. These audits should also evaluate the quality of data on the enforcement actions that states and other primacy agencies have taken to correct violations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: According to EPA, it has not worked with states to establish a national goal for the quality of monitoring violations. EPA stated that without the ability to conduct on-site data verifications using a statistically-based sample size, it is unable to derive a goal that would capture both completeness of state reporting to EPA and whether the states correctly assigned a violation for missed monitoring. EPA said that it intends to work with states to evaluate the establishment of a monitoring data quality goal once the new SDWIS NextGen data system has been developed and electronic data verification functions are incorporated into the system. In April 2015, EPA indicated that the agency intends to separate monitoring violations from reporting violations in the new SDWIS Primacy Agency data system. According to EPA, this will enable the primacy agencies and EPA to better understand the nature of system violations and with the violations delineated in this manner, will allow EPA to consider developing goals for monitoring and reporting violations. In September 2015, EPA reported to GAO that it anticipated that states will begin using SDWIS Prime in September 2017 and that it will consider GAO's recommendation once SDWIS Prime is fully operational and it is able to better establish such a goal.

    Recommendation: To improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance, the Administrator of EPA should work with the states to establish a goal, or goals, for the completeness and accuracy of data on monitoring violations. In setting these goals, EPA may want to consider whether certain types of monitoring violations merit specific targets. For example, the agency may decide that a goal for the states to completely and accurately report when required monitoring was not done should differ from a goal for reporting when monitoring was done but not reported on time.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: According to EPA, the agency has not made any adjustments to the performance measures for community water systems. EPA told us that, as part of its periodic review of the 5-year Strategic Plan, it will consult with the states, the Office of Management and Budget, GAO and the National Drinking Water Advisory Committee (NDWAC) on how it could construct a new measure to communicate better the aggregate public health risk posed by noncompliance as GAO suggests. EPA also said that it will continue to use a variety of tools and resources to convey to the public information on drinking water quality and potential health risks associated with exposure to contaminants. In April 2015, EPA wrote: OGWDW did not make any changes in Fiscal Year 2014 to the program's current community water system-based measure which communicates the results of efforts to return systems to compliance and maintain compliance. The "person month" measure provides insight into the duration of health based violations. For FY 15, we have developed a "person month" measure for tribal community water systems. Further efforts to evaluate the current measures and consideration of GAO suggestions will continue to be part of the Agency's periodic review of the five-year strategic plan. In September 2015, EPA told GAO that it was evaluating the effectiveness of the "person month" measure and is continuing to enhance and revise the measures taking GAO suggestions into consideration.

    Recommendation: To improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance, the Administrator of EPA should consider whether EPA's performance measures for community water systems could be constructed to more clearly communicate the aggregate public health risk posed by these systems' noncompliance with SDWA and progress in having those systems return to compliance in a timely manner.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to EPA, the agency is working on several activities to improve data quality. In support of the agency's efforts to articulate environmental outcomes and outputs in state categorical grant workplans, the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water initiated a workgroup in 2013 to develop greater consistency across its workplans, including having a category for data quality and data management activities, outcomes, outputs, and staffing levels and dollars associated with those activities. The Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water has created a Draft Data Quality Improvement Plan that is currently being reviewed by Regions and States. The overall goal of the 2013 plan, and the action items within that plan, are similar to the overall goal and action items in the 2008 plan and 2009 memorandum referenced in our original recommendation. The 2013 plan was developed with the Data Management Advisory Committee (DMAC) which is co-chaired by an EPA and a State representative. In addition, EPA's national water program guidance continues to identify improving data quality as an important activity for the Public Water System Supervision program. In April 2015, EPA reported that its Regions continue to incorporate data quality into PWSS grant workplans and discuss data management issues during regular meetings and reviews. EPA indicated that the agency worked with states to finalize a SDWIS Data Quality Improvement Plan in September 2013, and identified the following actions since then on implementing the plan: incorporating data quality functions within the developing SDWIS Primacy Agency (Prime), which will replace SDWIS/State and SDWIS/Fed ODS; producing a quarterly data quality matrix that is being used by EPA and States to track and encourage data quality improvements (the initial set of data quality matrix quarterly reports were completed in May 2014); and providing training on drinking water regulations and planning for the release of its online drinking water training system in Winter 2016. Because the 2013 plan supersedes the plans referenced in GAO-11-318, we feel the actions from 2013 forward meet the spirit of the original recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve EPA's ability to oversee the states' implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and provide Congress and the public with more complete and accurate information on compliance, the Administrator of EPA should work with the EPA regions and states to assess the progress made in implementing the steps called for by the 2008 action plan and the Director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water's 2009 memorandum; identify the barriers that have prevented more widespread implementation of the action plan and memorandum; and develop and publish a strategy for overcoming those barriers.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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