Environmental, Economic, and Political Issues Impede Potomac River Cleanup Efforts

GGD-82-7: Published: Jan 6, 1982. Publicly Released: Jan 6, 1982.

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GAO reviewed the difficulties state and local governments and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have experienced over the past decade in implementing water quality programs in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. GAO selected the D.C. area for a case study concerning federally mandated water quality programs because many of the problems identified in this report are similar to those occurring in many other areas. The study cites three areas which have been created as a result of the difficulties of the past 10 years: (1) the program has been much more costly than originally expected and current federal, state, and local fiscal constraints raise significant concerns regarding the affordability of water quality standards; (2) meeting environmental standards creates a problem of sludge disposal which has not yet been satisfactorily resolved; (3) the need for the rigorous water quality standards of the existing programs and the public benefits to be derived by additional investment to meet the standards have not yet been shown.

GAO supports substantive changes in the planning and siting of wastewater treatment and residues management facilities. Given the enormous costs of water pollution control programs and the impact that siting of wastewater treatment plants and residues management facilities have on the program's economic and environmental effectiveness, a regional approach to water quality planning is desirable. Some local prerogatives must be sacrificed, and effective organizations for planning and implementing regional solutions must be created with responsibility and authority to make and implement decisions. Federal, state, and local environmental agencies must consider their decisions on a comprehensive basis by assessing the trade-offs among the various programs and the impacts on the air, water, and land. GAO believes that EPA and state and local governments must give greater consideration to regional approaches to these problems allowing for more comprehensive and more achievable programs benefiting the economic and environmental factors involved.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: There is no indication that Congress intends action on this recommendation.

    Matter: Congress should consider placing more emphasis on a cost/benefit approach in funding advanced wastewater treatment projects.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The amendment to the act retained areawide planning but with a different approach than the two options GAO advocated.

    Matter: Congress should consider alternative approaches if it determines that the recommended optimal regional approach is not acceptable. These include: (1) requiring EPA to become a more active participant; and (2) eliminating regional planning as a federal requirement, including federal funding for such planning, and assessing projects on a case-by-case basis using as criteria available alternatives within the applicant jurisdiction's boundaries.

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The amendment to the act retained areawide planning, but with a different approach than the two options GAO advocated.

    Matter: Congress should, in considering reauthorization of and amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, retain the essential design of the act's regional planning provisions. Congress should also reemphasize that EPA requires, as necessary, regional planning and program implementation mechanisms for metropolitan areas as a prerequisite for them to obtain federal water quality project grants.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: There is no indication that the agency will take action in near or mid-term.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should approve no treatment plant upgrading or expansion without first having an approved program for disposing of the resulting increased sludge volumes.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: There is no indication that the agency will take action in near to mid-term.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should undertake a more active role in assisting local jurisdictions in finding suitable methods for disposing of their sewage sludge and leading them through the regulatory maze to ensure they can be implemented.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: There is no indication that agency action will be taken in near to mid-term.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should renew earlier priority efforts to establish and issue regulations for the distribution and marketing of sewage sludge products.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: There is no indication that agency action will be taken in near to mid-term.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should ascertain how the agency can manage its programs in a more integrated manner and make recommendations to Congress on what, if any, legislative changes may be required.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Recent amendments to the Clean Water Act eliminating facilities planning grants as a separate grant make this recommendation moot. However, EPA is revising its regulations to assist state and regional agencies in developing necessary institutional mechanisms.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should fund no new planning efforts for wastewater treatment plants or related projects in metropolitan areas where regional approaches are needed until involved state and local governments have developed the institutional mechanisms needed to ensure thorough regional assessments of alternatives and implementation of resulting recommendations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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