Some Drinking Water Quality Suspect, According to GAO, USGS
One consequence of conservatives’ insatiable hunger to starve government could jeopardize people’s health by letting drinking water become contaminated and go unreported, according to a report from the non-partisan Government Accounting Office (GAO). For now, people can still track local water safety, however incomplete the data, and records show dozens of enforcement actions in Peoria County that have received little media attention.
The nation’s Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is supervised by the federal Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], but monitoring is delegated to states – which are under-reporting violations and contaminations, the GAO says.
“According to a 2010 Gallup survey, the safety of drinking water continues to be the environmental issue of greatest concern to Americans,” the GAO said, “with 50 percent worrying ‘a great deal’ about drinking-water pollution.”
With good cause, it turns out.
“Americans rely on more than 51,000 community water systems for safe drinking water,” the GAO said. “Even though this drinking-water supply is generally considered among the safest in the world, 11 states had 20 outbreaks of illness associated with drinking water in 2005 and 2006 that resulted in 612 illnesses and 4 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Reviewing EPA audits, the GAO found that 2009 data showed states either failed to report or inaccurately reported 26 percent of health-related violations and 84 percent of monitoring violations of SDWA. Several factors affected states’ lousy record-keeping, GAO reported, including inadequacies in funding, staffing and training.
The GAO recommends states improve their compliance with the law in four ways: Resume routine data verification audits, work with states to establish goals for the completeness and accuracy of data, evaluate EPA’s performance measures to better communicate the public health risk posed by noncompliance, and work with the EPA regions and states to assess the progress and barriers to implementation.
Meanwhile, a separate report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released last month found that about one in five U.S. wells tested were contaminated with some unwanted substance such as arsenic, uranium or radon. The USGS said about one in ten wells contain more than one such substance.
“In public wells these contaminants are regulated by the U.S. EPA, and contaminants are removed from the water before people drink it,” said Joe Ayotte, USGS hydrologist and lead author on the study. “However, trace elements could be present in water from private wells at levels that are considered to pose a risk to human health, because they aren’t subject to regulations. In many cases people might not even know that they have an issue.”
Previously, the USGS reported that many synthetic contaminants (including pesticides, solvents and nitrates) were little diminished after treatment. (Other known contaminants such as hormones and pharmaceuticals, weren’t tested for.)
Many relevant public records remain accessible online – even if, as the GAO reports, states don’t include some violations or are inaccurate more than a fourth of the time. Again, federal law is mainly implemented by states – and public water systems are supposed to submit accurate reports to state environmental agencies.
The EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online data is searchable by county and state at www.epa-echo.gov/echo/compliance_report_sdwa.html.
If you use it, here’s a key to some abbreviations – CWS: Community Water System; M/R: Monitoring/Reporting violation [water system’s failure to monitor for, or report to the state, the level of contaminants]; MCL: Maximum Contaminant Level [the limit on contaminants in drinking water]; NTNCWS: Non-Transient Non-Community Water System; Pop. Served: Population served (by a water system – a church, for example, may have a ground-water source of water that serves 40 people, compared to a municipality with a surface-water source serving 11,000, meaning it’s unfair to compare the consequences of their relative performances); PWS: Public Water System; PWSS: Public Water System Supervision program; SDWIS/FED: Safe Drinking Water System/Federal version; TNCWS: Transient Non-Community Water System; TT: Treatment Technique [a drinking water treatment required by EPA or state rules]; GW: ground water system; GWP: purchased ground water; SW: surface water systems; SWP: purchased surface water; GU: ground water under the influence of surface water; and GUP: purchased ground water under the direct influence of surface water.
If you don’t use ECHO, here are highlights from Peoria County (which has 89 total systems), with its worst violators, according to the federal EPA, plus the number of informal and formal enforcement actions in the last five years, and reported problems:
Ancient Oaks Youth Camp in Peoria had ten enforcement actions over that period, mostly due to violations of the Total Coliform Rule (microbial or bacterial presence).
Caterpillar Mapleton/ Util. Eng. Supt. had 15 actions, mostly due to violations of turbidity (“often associated with higher levels of disease-causing microorganisms such as viruses, parasites and some bacteria,” the EPA says) and haloacetic acids.
Cat’s Demonstration Area in Edwards had ten, mostly because of both volatile and synthetic organic compound contamination.
The Edelstein Water Co-op had 128 enforcement actions, mostly due to radionuclides.
The village of Glasford had 72 enforcement actions, mostly due to radionuclides.
Kingston Mines had 100 actions, also mostly due to radionuclides.
The Peter Rabbit Day Care School in Edwards had 16 enforcement actions, due to contamination from both synthetic and volatile organic compounds.
St. Mary’s School (bored well) had 12 enforcement actions, almost all because of synthetic organic compounds.
“They say that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – but when it comes to drinking water, it turns out that all too often, EPA has no idea whether it’s broke,” said U.S. Rep. Edward Market (D-Mass.). “To add to the problem, House Republicans have just proposed to cut $134 million dollars from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund Program, which provides money to states and public water systems to comply with the law and increase public health protection.”
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