Mar 12, 2004

EPA Data On Water Purity Incomplete

According to a new report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overstated the purity of the nation's drinking water in four recent years, potentially leaving millions of people at risk.
From 1999 through 2002, EPA announced that it met its goal that 91 percent of U.S. residents have access to safe tap water. But the data the EPA used to make those conclusions were "flawed and incomplete" because states did not report all violations to the federal agency, stated a report released this week by the EPA's assistant inspector general Kwai Chan and reported on by Washington Post staff writer David Nakamura today.
The EPA presented the inaccurate rates to the media, giving the public a false impression, Chan said. The EPA's documents show that some agency officials believe that in 2002, only about 81 percent of the jurisdictions monitored had safe drinking water — much lower than the official agency estimate of 94 percent for that year. The lower number would put roughly 30 million additional people at potential risk.
Benjamin H. Grumbles, the EPA's acting assistant administrator for the office of water, acknowledged in a letter responding to the inspector general's report that the agency's records are incomplete. He said the EPA has been working hard to improve compliance in reporting from the states and has made some strides but still has a long way to go.
Grumbles wrote that the EPA was not trying to mislead or lie to the public with its reports but is simply "using the data that is available to us through the national reporting system."
Chan's report, based on an independent analysis that the inspector general's office began in June, was not prompted by the lead contamination of drinking water in the District. However, Chan's findings are important for the District because the city is one of two jurisdictions -- Wyoming is the other -- that reports water problems directly to the EPA. In all other areas, state governments have primacy in overseeing local water agencies, and the EPA oversees the states.
The EPA's oversight of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority's handling of the District's lead contamination problems has been criticized by some local and federal leaders, who said the federal agency should have demanded that WASA provide more information to the public after the contamination was discovered two years ago.
A coalition of environmental groups met with high-level EPA officials yesterday and harshly criticized WASA, according to Damu Smith, the meeting's chairman and executive director of the District-based National Black Environmental Justice Network. The coalition demanded that the EPA determine whether low-income communities have experienced worse lead contamination than other neighborhoods, he said.
"Our main message was that EPA has to take leadership in this situation," Smith said. "The mayor and the city council don't have the authority to force WASA to do what it needs to do. It's EPA that has the power to do that."
Tom Voltaggio, EPA's deputy regional administrator, said that the meeting was "excellent" and that more meetings will follow. "We want to work with them and get their sense of where they think the best place to put our time and energy is," he said.
WASA officials announced yesterday that they intend to release today the results of hundreds of water tests conducted last month. The agency also said it has retested two D.C. homes where water showed the highest lead levels and found that the lead receded significantly after the taps were flushed for 10 minutes.
A house on Evarts Street NE in the Bloomingdale neighborhood had lead levels as high as 48,000 parts per billion, well above the federal limit of 15 parts per billion. A house on Monroe Street NW had a level of 24,000 parts per billion. Retests recently showed that the Evarts house had a level of 6.7 parts per billion and the Monroe house 5.5 parts per billion after the taps were flushed, WASA officials said.
WASA Deputy General Manager Michael Marcotte said the high readings at those houses probably were caused by partial lead service line replacements done by WASA at both houses last year. When lead lines are cut, the leaching of lead often increases because a protective coating of lime on the pipes can become dislodged, officials have said.
The EPA bases its statements about the quality of drinking water across the country on data collected by states from their utilities, which test for about 100 contaminants and pollutants, including lead, arsenic, industrial chemicals and fecal matter.
The EPA inspector general's report states that the agency has a verification program in which it reviewed 71 water systems where safe drinking water violations were found. But of those, 17 had never been reported by the states to the EPA's safe drinking water information system, which is used to make the agency's official estimate of jurisdictions with safe water. With 54,000 water systems nationwide, it is difficult to determine just how many unreported violations take place each year, the inspector general's report said.
Cynthia Dougherty, head of the EPA's safe drinking water program, said the EPA does not know "what the right number is. The only number we can use is what the states report. We have not figured out yet a good way to come up with a different number."
Erik Olson, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, believes that the EPA's regulatory system is "broken."
Federal authorities, he said, "don't even know the basic information about public water systems."
The lead contamination in D.C. tap water, Olson continued, is only "a very small part of the problem. There's a much more profound, serious problem they're trying to paper over."
EPA officials said they are implementing more training for state officials, simplified reporting formats and reduced complexity of federal rules. But Paul Schwartz, national policy coordinator for Clean Water Action, another environmental group, said the EPA is "not really getting in there and aggressively [monitoring] these states. The EPA has to take a far more proactive oversight role."