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GAO Says Federal Facilities Are Major Water Polluters : Survey Finds That U.S. Agencies Put a Low Priority on Compliance With Regulations

Times Staff Writer

Federally owned facilities violate clean-water regulations twice as often as private firms because U.S. government agencies put a low priority on compliance with anti-pollution rules, the General Accounting Office reported Saturday.

The study of 150 major U.S. facilities also criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for not taking effective enforcement actions against federal government polluters in the two years ending in October, 1987.

It listed the Energy Department, the Navy and the Army as the worst violators but said that, on the average, 20% of federal facilities failed to comply with anti-pollution rules, compared to a 10% non-compliance rate for industrial plants.

“Furthermore, over 40% of all violating federal facilities were non-compliant for a year or longer,” the GAO report said.

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During the two-year study period, the congressional watchdog agency found, EPA and state regulators took timely enforcement actions against federal facilities in only eight of the 46 cases in which a crackdown was needed.

While federal officials often cited time-consuming budget and procurement rules to excuse their lack of compliance, the GAO said, they were obstacles in only one-fourth of the cases examined.

“A more fundamental barrier was the low priority that federal facilities gave to correcting violations,” the GAO said.

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the House Interior subcommittee on water and power resources who requested the GAO report along with Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), accused the Reagan Administration of lacking the will to enforce laws to control water pollution.

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“This report shows that the well-documented crisis at the nation’s nuclear weapons plants is just one aspect of a broad disregard for the environment by the highest officials of the Administration,” Miller said in a statement.

Fazio said the report showed “chronic negligence” on the part of the Energy Department, the Pentagon and other federal agencies in complying with federal clean-water laws.

“It reveals federal agencies that continually pollute our waterways and frequently consider themselves above the standards and requirements we impose on the private sector,” Fazio added.

“The report also documents an environmental protection bureaucracy--at both the federal and state levels--that treats the federal agencies with kid gloves . . . .

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“By cracking down on federal polluters early in his Administration, President-elect Bush can demonstrate in a very meaningful way that he intends to be a serious steward of the environment and our natural resources,” Fazio said.

The GAO said the primary causes of violations were inadvertent or accidental discharges of effluent and mechanical or chemical problems with the treatment process.

Inadequate EPA oversight, the study added, allowed some federal facilities to remain significantly out of compliance with anti-pollution rules for two years without any enforcement action against them.

While some violations could be corrected with relatively small outlays, the GAO said, in one case involving the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge, Tenn., nuclear plant, a project to reduce mercury in plant effluents cost $8.3 million and had to be approved by Congress.

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