States' Compliance Lacking in Meeting Safe Drinking Water Regulations

CED-82-43: Published: Mar 3, 1982. Publicly Released: Mar 3, 1982.

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The National Interim Primary Drinking Water Regulations established drinking water quality standards and water testing requirements to ensure the quality of drinking water provided by the nation's public water systems. However, compliance with these regulations by the nation's public water systems seems minimal at best. GAO reviewed the Safe Drinking Water Program to determine how effectively the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and primacy states, those granted authority by the EPA Administrator to operate the program, have implemented the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

GAO found that: (1) many small community public water system supplies are not meeting the drinking water quality standards and are not being tested as required by federal regulations; and (2) as defined in the act, the effectiveness of the public notification process in informing drinking water users of violations is questionable. GAO believes that a combination of factors including the lack of full-time and properly trained operators, water system operator apathy, failure of states to perform water sampling activities, and insufficient state resources are the primary factors causing the water quality standards problems. GAO also found that the enforcement actions in the three EPA regional offices and the seven states included in its review to bring water systems into compliance ranged from none to minimal, followed no particular pattern, and were not as timely as they should have been. EPA has recently initiated several measures to deal with the mounting noncompliance problem, and GAO believes that the current action is a step in the right direction. If properly carried forward, this effort should result in actions designed to improve the water quality program.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Drinking Water to develop and implement specific guidelines that the states can use when developing the enforcement strategy section of their state plans. The guidelines should include a model for ranking water systems for enforcement action, including, as a minimum, such factors as: (1) the type of violation, exceeding water quality standard or the failure to test; (2) the degree of violation, the extent to which the drinking water quality standard is exceeded or the number of months the water supplier failed to test; and (3) the size of population affected by the violation. The guidelines should also identify the various types of enforcement actions available. Finally, the guidelines should clearly define the terms "serious violators" and "less serious violators." The guidelines will help states to more effectively use their limited resources and provide for consistent application of enforcement actions.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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