Fast Facts

The EPA uses National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to regulate wastewater discharges. However, nearly 11,000 facilities significantly exceeded their permit limits and illegally discharged pollutants into nearby waters in 2018.

EPA has a goal to reduce by half significant noncompliance with individual NPDES permits by the end of FY 2022. But the data that states and facilities report to EPA to help track compliance is incomplete and has errors.

We recommended (among other things) assessing the quality of the NPDES data that states and facilities are reporting so EPA can be sure it's making progress toward its goal.

Pipe discharging wastewater into freshwater

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Since 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has modified one of its three national initiatives emphasizing compliance with the Clean Water Act and has discontinued two others (see fig.). The goal of the modified initiative is to reduce significant noncompliance with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits by half by the end of fiscal year 2022. Such permits set limits on discharges of wastewater from point sources, such as a pipe from an industrial facility. This goal supports EPA's strategic objective to increase compliance with environmental laws in its strategic plan for fiscal years 2018-2022. EPA discontinued its initiatives focused on animal waste pollution and raw sewage and stormwater runoff, returning these areas to the core enforcement program in 2018 and 2019, respectively. As a result, these areas no longer receive the heightened attention and focused resources of the national initiatives, but the agency still pursues enforcement actions when needed.

Changes in EPA's Clean Water Act National Initiatives

Changes in EPA's Clean Water Act National Initiatives

EPA posts data that states report on their NPDES compliance and enforcement activities to its website, but the data are not reliable for identifying changes in the number of activities states conducted since 2015. EPA's most recent assessment of states' data showed that two of 17 states met expectations for the accuracy and completeness of the data recorded in the agency's national database. EPA is working with states to improve their data, and it includes on its website disclosures by some states about problems and limitations with their data. However, the agency has not ensured that all states' disclosures are consolidated, complete, and updated. Until it does so, potential users of the data may not fully understand the data or the data's limitations.

EPA developed a measure to track progress toward its goal for reducing the rate of significant noncompliance by NPDES facilities with individual permits by the end of fiscal year 2022. While the measure tracks changes in the number of facilities in significant noncompliance, the results of the measure are unclear because data EPA needs to track compliance are incomplete and contain inaccuracies. According to EPA, about 70 percent of NDPES facilities have sufficiently complete data in the national database for EPA to track compliance. EPA is working with states to improve data quality, but it does not have a plan to assess the overall accuracy of the data. Until it does so, EPA cannot be certain what its measure is showing and if EPA is making progress toward its goal.

Why GAO Did This Study

EPA partners with states to oversee compliance with and enforcement of the Clean Water Act. In fiscal year 2020, there were roughly 335,000 facilities with active NPDES permits, which are used to regulate wastewater discharges under the act. In 2015, EPA began requiring states and facilities to electronically report data on their NPDES activities. EPA estimated that in 2018, nearly 11,000 facilities significantly exceeded their permit limits and illegally discharged pollutants into nearby waters, which may pose serious threats to human health and the environment.

GAO was asked to review EPA's enforcement of the Clean Water Act. This report examines (1) changes since 2015 in EPA's national initiatives for ensuring compliance with the act, (2) changes in NPDES compliance and enforcement activities since 2015, and (3) the extent to which EPA is measuring progress toward compliance with the NPDES program. GAO reviewed and analyzed EPA documents and data on NPDES compliance and enforcement activities. GAO also interviewed officials from eight states, selected in part by EPA region, to learn about their NPDES compliance and enforcement activities and data reporting.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations, including that EPA consolidate, complete, and update disclosures of data limitations on its reporting website and develop a plan to assess the overall quality of state reported NPDES data. EPA generally agreed with these recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency The Assistant Administrator of EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance should revise its guidance to select files for its State Review Framework assessments of state-reported data to incorporate statistically valid probability sampling. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In June 2021, EPA stated that it will address this recommendation as part of the fifth round of State Review Framework assessments. GAO will continue to review EPA's actions as they plan and conduct this next round of assessments.
Environmental Protection Agency The Assistant Administrator of EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance should ensure that consolidated, complete, and updated information on all data limitations is disclosed on the State Water Dashboard. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In June 2021, EPA stated that it agrees with the recommendation and would implement it by September 30, 2022. GAO will continue to follow up with EPA and review any further actions.
Environmental Protection Agency The Assistant Administrator of EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance should develop a plan to determine the overall accuracy and completeness of the permit limit and discharge monitoring report data recorded in its national database. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In June 2021, EPA stated that it generally agreed with the recommendation and stated that there is long-term value in determining the accuracy of discharge monitoring data. EPA also noted that improving the accuracy of the data will not improve the completeness of the data in the system. EPA stated that it would develop a plan to determine the overall accuracy and completeness of data in its system. GAO will continue to review the agency's progress toward developing and implementing the plan.
Environmental Protection Agency The Assistant Administrator of EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance should develop a performance measure to track the reduction in pollutant discharges resulting from enforcement actions for facilities in significant noncompliance and disclose any limitations. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In June 2021, EPA stated that it has a performance measure for tracking the reduction in pollutant discharges resulting from enforcement actions. The agency also stated that it plans to develop a measure to determine the amount of illegal pollution reduced by actions to reduce significant noncompliance with the Clean Water Act. The agency said it anticipated developing a measure by December 2021. GAO will continue to follow-up with EPA to review its progress on this recommendation.

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