Drinking Water:

Key Quality Assurance Program Is Flawed and Underfunded

RCED-93-97: Published: Apr 9, 1993. Publicly Released: Apr 15, 1993.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed state routine inspections of public water systems to determine: (1) whether sanitary surveys are comprehensive enough to determine if public water systems can provide good-quality drinking water; and (2) what the surveys revealed about the operations and condition of water systems nationwide.

GAO found that: (1) many states did not adequately conduct, document, or interpret sanitary survey results; (2) 45 states reported that they do not evaluate one or more of the 14 major components that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends for evaluation; (3) some states do not require documentation of inspection items or survey results; (4) the most frequent deficiency cited in state surveys was inadequate cross-connection programs to ensure that portable water is not mixed with contaminated water; (5) many surveys revealed recurring problems with equipment maintenance and records, deficiencies in water systems' general management and operations, and inadequate protection of water sources; and (6) effective action on recurring problems depends on resolution of the drinking water program's funding shortage.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Working with the states, EPA has developed and published a Sanitary Survey Guidance for States. The guidance, which was co-signed by EPA and ASDWA on December 21, 1995, addresses frequency in conducting sanitary surveys, qualifications for sanitary survey inspectors, documentation of surveys, and followup after surveys. Under EPA sponsorship, sanitary survey training is being provided to the states. One of the topics covers criteria to use in interpreting survey results and identifying appropriate actions to take. EPA is also providing learning support videos for state inspectors to assist them in learning/reinforcing the critical components of a survey. Four short, to-the-point videos have been provided covering well-site inspections, storage tank inspections, cross-connections, and disinfection of the distribution system. Field checklists for inspectors to use in inspections on groundwater and surface water systems have been completed and are being used as a training tool and as field guides.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the effectiveness of sanitary surveys in protecting drinking water quality, the Administrator, EPA, should help states to develop and implement procedures to ensure that deficiencies detected during sanitary surveys are corrected on a timely basis. This assistance could include identifying states with effective follow-up systems and helping other states set up similar systems.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Funding constraints continue to limit EPA's ability to provide direct sanitary survey training to states' inspectors. EPA is preparing a video that states could use to train their staffs on how to conduct sanitary surveys, a series of videos that focus on specific critical aspects of a water system that should receive special attention during surveys, and a field guide to supplement the formal training.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of sanitary surveys, the Administrator, EPA, should augment the agency's efforts to provide formal sanitary survey training to states' inspectors.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Working with the states, EPA has developed and published a Sanitary Survey Guidance for States. The guidance, which was co-signed by EPA and ASDWA on December 21, 1995, addresses frequency in conducting sanitary surveys, qualifications for sanitary survey inspectors, documentation of surveys, and followup after surveys. The guidance also specifies the minimum elements of a sanitary survey that are considered essential for the proper conduct of a thorough survey. In addition, EPA is sponsoring sanitary survey training for the states and one of the topics included in the training is criteria to use in interpreting survey results and identifying appropriate follow-up actions. Finally, to assist states, EPA has provided a compendium of effective state sanitary survey programs.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of sanitary surveys, the Administrator, EPA, should assist states in developing criteria to guide inspectors in interpreting the results of surveys and in identifying appropriate actions to be taken when specific types of deficiencies are detected.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA is planning to publish additional guidance on sanitary surveys that addresses survey frequency, minimum criteria, and follow-up action on previously noted deficiencies. EPA also plans to publish a compendium on good state sanitary survey programs, including the forms used to document inspections.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of sanitary surveys, the Administrator, EPA, should work with states to establish minimum requirements governing the frequency of sanitary surveys, as well as the manner in which they should be conducted and documented. These requirements should be set in a manner that considers states' resource constraints, but reflects the survey elements essential to ensure that water systems are capable of delivering safe drinking water to consumers.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA issued guidance to its regional offices to consider, among other things, the extent of follow-up action on identified deficiencies when evaluating state survey programs. However, due to resource limitations, the extent of EPA oversight will be limited.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the effectiveness of sanitary surveys in protecting drinking water quality, the Administrator, EPA, should ensure that, as part of their oversight responsibilities, EPA headquarters and regional staff monitor the effectiveness of states' follow-up.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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