Drinking Water:

Compliance Problems Undermine EPA Program as New Challenges Emerge

RCED-90-127: Published: Jun 8, 1990. Publicly Released: Aug 6, 1990.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO assessed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act program, focusing on: (1) the extent to which community water systems complied with the act's requirements for monitoring water supplies and meeting drinking water standards; (2) EPA and state enforcement programs' effectiveness in ensuring compliance; and (3) the potential impacts of new drinking water requirements.

GAO found that EPA studies showed that some violations at the water system level were not detected because of: (1) sampling errors by water system operators; (2) the increasingly technical nature of water sample collection; and (3) inadequately trained or inexperienced operators, particularly at small systems. GAO also found that: (1) some identified violations were not reported to EPA; (2) some states adopted policies suspending or restricting certain EPA monitoring requirements, resulting in water systems not performing all required tests; (3) key data needed to determine water system compliance relied on inadequate state tracking systems; and (4) EPA and the states will face increasing financial and regulatory burdens resulting from new drinking water standards.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA regions are reviewing state administrative order and civil referral processes during annual program reviews. EPA issued a report on state administrative penalty programs in January 1991. Regions are also monitoring the status of state civil referrals.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that state and EPA enforcement actions meet program requirements and are effective in encouraging water systems' compliance with drinking water program requirements, the Administrator, EPA, should take steps to increase the prospect that appropriate state enforcement actions will return violating systems to compliance. Specifically, the Administrator should direct EPA regions to examine, as part of their annual program reviews, whether: (1) states relying on civil referrals have the resources and commitment needed within the state drinking water program office and the attorney general's office to ensure that such referrals will be acted upon; and (2) states relying on administrative orders have a workable procedure to implement them in a timely manner and have sufficient authority to assess penalties as part of the order.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of April 1991, EPA had reiterated in guidance documents the requirements for bilateral compliance agreements. EPA also instructed the regions that a compliance agreement will not be considered an appropriate enforcement response when systems serving more than 10,000 persons fail to meet the June 1993 deadline for installing filtration.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that state and EPA enforcement actions meet program requirements and are effective in encouraging water systems' compliance with drinking water program requirements, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Drinking Water to help ensure that state enforcement actions meet EPA appropriateness criteria. Specifically, the Office should issue guidance to EPA regions emphasizing that bilateral compliance agreements must be signed and must include a compliance schedule with interim milestones, if applicable, and a final date when compliance will be achieved. The guidance should also reiterate that a bilateral compliance agreement may not be an appropriate action when the violating water system has had a poor compliance history.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA headquarters officials required EPA regions, as part of their fiscal year (FY) 1991 annual review of state programs, to look at compliance with federal regulations. EPA is working with states to expand their resource base to adequately implement EPA regulations. EPA expanded its data verification activities, using a revised protocol focused on whether states comply with federal regulations.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should improve water systems' compliance with program requirements by directing the Office of Drinking Water to evaluate state policies that suspend or restrict federal monitoring requirements and determine, within the constraints of the Safe Drinking Water Act, whether modifications should be made to existing regulations. Once those policies are evaluated, the Office should ensure that the states observe the final decisions and enforce the regulations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA issued guidance in 1991 that recommended that a sanitary survey be conducted at each facility at least every 3 years. Also, EPA provides sanitary survey training to about five states each year. The course will be revised based on requirements of newly promulgated regulations. Finally, an initiative included in the EPA mobilization strategy is aimed at helping states address critical problems.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should improve water systems' compliance with program requirements by directing the Office of Drinking Water to encourage states to implement sanitary survey programs more consistently. Specifically, the Office should clarify to the states its ambiguous policy on whether sanitary survey programs are required. In addition, the Office should encourage all quality assurance efforts, including operator certification and training, as well as sanitary surveys, by assisting states in finding alternative ways to fund such programs.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 1991, EPA issued a revised data verification protocol which included a section on checking for intentional data falsification. EPA issued guidance on ways of detecting and investigating potentially invalid or fraudulent compliance data in April 1991.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should improve water systems' compliance with program requirements by directing the Office of Drinking Water to evaluate the extent to which intentional falsification of test data or manipulation of the water sampling process may be occurring. The Office of Drinking Water should also provide guidance to the states on how to best discourage those practices by water systems and to detect them when they do occur, so that appropriate enforcement action may be taken.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA undertook several activities to address this recommendation which include: (1) funding the National Rural Water Association Training and Technical Assistance programs; (2) holding state inspector training in five states per year; (3) issuing a sampling handbook for water system operators; and (4) establishing a certification exam for very small system operators.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should improve water systems' compliance with program requirements by directing the Office of Drinking Water to promote more consistent and effective use of state-sponsored training programs and operator certification programs, which would reduce operator error. Those efforts should include guidance on: (1) how training programs should help water systems deal with the increasingly technical drinking water regulations now being promulgated by EPA; and (2) what the minimum criteria should be for state operator certification requirements.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA completed its revision of significant noncompliance criteria and implemented it effective October 1990.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should follow through on the EPA reexamination of its significant noncomplier criteria in order to more comprehensively identify chronic noncompliance with monitoring requirements and substantial violations of maximum contaminant level requirements.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has issued enforcement guidance and other related guidance to the regions on several occasions over the past 2 years.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that state and EPA enforcement actions meet program requirements and are effective in encouraging water systems' compliance with drinking water program requirements, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Drinking Water to revise its enforcement guidance to regions to encourage them to more actively consider EPA follow-up enforcement action beyond cases referred to EPA by state authorities. This expanded universe of enforcement targets should include cases where state action may have been taken, but was not effective in achieving compliance.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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