Water Pollution:

Stronger Efforts Needed by EPA to Control Toxic Water Pollution

RCED-91-154: Published: Jul 19, 1991. Publicly Released: Jul 26, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) and states' efforts to implement the Clean Water Act (CWA) requirements for controlling water pollution, focusing on: (1) their efforts to identify waters impaired by toxic pollutants and to develop strategies to control discharges into U.S. waters; and (2) the extent to which existing water pollution control programs and activities control all types and sources of toxic pollution.

GAO found that: (1) EPA and states failed to identify and target many of the nation's waters for cleanup due to such factors as ineffective monitoring, the lack of an all-inclusive priority pollutant list, and outdated cleanup strategies for impaired waters; (2) EPA targeted less than 3 percent of the 18,770 waters it identified as impaired for more stringent regulatory controls or cleanup; (3) while EPA requires states to establish monitoring methods and procedures, EPA lacks an enforceable requirement that specifies a toxic monitoring method or how often such monitoring should be done to identify toxic pollution; (4) EPA has been slow to develop and revise effluent guidelines for categories of industrial discharging toxic pollutants; (5) criteria developed by EPA and used by states to establish numeric discharge limits only covered a limited number of toxic pollutants which were not updated; (6) few states adopted numeric discharge limits for toxic pollutants in their water quality standards and discharge permits; (7) more stringent toxic pollution controls could increase noncompliance with permit requirements and make the enforcement burden greater; (8) although at least 30 states use such alternative financing mechanisms as fees to generate revenue to support their programs, the revenue is only a small fraction of the funds needed; (9) some states were reluctant to use or rely on alternative financial mechanisms because they believed that the added cost of pollution control would result in industries moving to states without such mechanisms; and (10) EPA and some states have emphasized prevention strategies to correct pollution, but a number of barriers hinder greater use of such practices.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Senate Committee on Clean Water Act reauthorizations has attempted to develop a proposal for such a fee for inclusion in the Senate bill for Clean Water Act reauthorizations. However, according to committee staff, no proposal could be developed that was politically acceptable due to the ceiling set for the Federal budget as well as problems in deciding who should pay and how much. It is unlikely that such a proposal will be acceptable in the near term.

    Matter: In light of existing resource constraints and barriers hindering greater use of innovative approaches to financing water pollution programs and preventing toxic discharges to the nation's waters, Congress may wish to consider directing EPA to develop a pollutant-based discharger fee system that would: (1) generate additional revenue for water pollution programs; and (2) serve as an incentive for dischargers to use pollution prevention techniques to reduce or eliminate their toxic discharges.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 1991, prior to the issuance of GAO's report, EPA was directed by court order (and agreed in the consent decree) to accelerate the issuance of effluent guidelines during the 1990s. EPA's budget for effluent guideline preparation was increased to meet the requirements of the court order. EPA has not accelerated the issuance of water quality criteria for toxic pollutants. Recently, EPA announced plans to shift its priorities for water quality criteria away from toxics to an increased emphasis on criteria for contaminated sediments, biological criteria, habitat criteria, and wildlife criteria. This program experienced declining budgets since the report was issued.

    Recommendation: To improve controls over the discharge of toxic pollutants to the nation's waters, the Administrator, EPA, should accelerate the development and revision of national effluent guidelines and criteria documents by focusing on the most harmful toxic pollutants being discharged to the nation's receiving waters. EPA should also follow through with its initial efforts to find alternative ways to obtain additional resource to support the development of guidelines and criteria documents.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA said that efforts were already ongoing when GAO's report was issued to increase the amount and availability of toxics monitoring data. EPA said it had been working with other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, to coordinate monitoring for toxic pollutants. Also, in October 1991, EPA issued revised guidance to states that clarified how the states were to report toxics monitoring data for the biennial water quality inventory reporting process. However, EPA's guidance does not respond to the recommendation; it does not direct increased monitoring for toxics or require the assessment of a minimum percentage of surface water miles during each biennial review cycle.

    Recommendation: To improve controls over the discharge of toxic pollutants to the nation's waters, the Administrator, EPA, should issue guidance directing states to conduct more ambient monitoring for toxic pollutants as part of the biennial water quality inventory reporting process and to assess the quality of a minimum percentage of their surface water miles during each biennial review cycle.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA believes that existing guidance on variances clearly identifies how variances should be granted. The agency only plans to issue additional guidance when necessary.

    Recommendation: To improve controls over the discharge of toxic pollutants to the nation's waters, the Administrator, EPA, should issue guidance on how and when states may grant variances for state water quality standards and for individual toxic discharge limits in permits.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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