EPA Accused of Laxity on Water Purity : Wildlife Federation Says It Failed to Act in Thousands of Cases

Associated Press

The Environmental Protection Agency has failed to act against tens of thousands of violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act by local water systems, the National Wildlife Federation said today.

“There has been a major breakdown” in administration of the 1974 law, said Jay Hair, executive vice president of the federation, at a news conference.

The federation, whose 5 million members make it the nation’s largest environmental organization, released a report of an 18-month examination of 15,000 pages of EPA computer printouts for the 1987 fiscal year that showed 36,763 water systems committing 101,588 violations of the act. The nation has over 200,000 water systems.

Required Notices Missing


Although the law requires that every violation be reported to customers of the system, only 5,867 notices were issued. The federation did not count failure to issue notices in its survey of violations. If it had, they would have numbered 197,309.

Of the violations, said Norman Dean, federation staff lawyer and principal author of the report, 17,506 were violations of enforceable contaminant standards and the rest were monitoring and reporting violations which both he and the agency consider potentially more serious.

Monitoring and reporting requirements are “the heart of the law,” the study said. “They enable the identification and correction of public health risks before they blossom into crises.”

Bacterial Violations High


Seventy percent of the contaminant violations were for exceeding bacteriological standards, 20% involved inorganic chemicals or substances like metals or arsenic, 0.6% were organic chemicals such as pesticides, 0.9% were radioactivity violations and 7.7% were turbidity--sediment--violations, according to Dean’s figures.

“There’s no excuse for a public water system to be distributing water that exceeds the bacteriological standards,” Dean said, since bacteria are easily killed by cheap, well-understood chlorination.

The law permits states to run drinking water protection programs approved by EPA if their standards and procedures are as tough as the federal standards. Only Indiana, Wyoming and the District of Columbia have opted to leave EPA with direct authority in those jurisdictions.

Discretion Removed

Dean said a 1982 report on lax enforcement by the General Accounting Office led Congress to remove enforcement discretion from EPA in 1986, changing the statute to read that EPA “shall” take enforcement action against every violation if the state does not do so in 30 days. Before, the law read that EPA “may” act.

But what action is needed is left to EPA. The maximum penalty is a fine of $25,000 a day for each violation, rarely imposed.