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GAO discussed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) and states' enforcement activities under the Clean Water Act. GAO noted that: (1) the success of EPA water quality programs significantly relied on strong and effective EPA and state enforcement to deter violations and to help ensure the timely correction of identified violations; and (2) EPA has made limited progress in improving long-standing enforcement problems that previous studies and EPA evaluations have consistently identified. GAO also noted that: (1) EPA and the states appeared reluctant to take strong enforcement actions; (2) enforcement of federal water quality laws continues to be weak and sporadic, and most enforcement actions are mild and informal; (3) EPA and the states frequently reduced or dropped penalties without adequate documentation; (4) EPA did not establish sufficient criteria for allowing regulators to set enforcement priorities and identifying appropriate types of enforcement actions; and (5) EPA headquarters did not always track or follow up on regional offices' and states' enforcement activities. GAO believes that, until EPA and state enforcement becomes a more effective deterrent against violations of the Clean Water Act, violators will continue to enjoy competitive advantages over those who comply with the Act, and EPA will not realize its full potential in protecting U.S. waters.

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