Yesterday, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee questioned top-ranking Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials about the agency’s enforcement of drinking-water safety laws. The hearing was held in response to recent studies by the New York Times and the Associated Press indicating alarming trends in the quality of the nation’s drinking water.

The New York Times compiled and analyzed millions of records from water systems and regulators around the nation, finding that more than 20 percent of the nation’s water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act over the last five years. The act, adopted by Congress in 2002, requires the EPA to create water quality standards to be applied to the thousands of water systems nationwide.

DrinkingWater.jpgThe violations – which include dangerous bacteria and/or illegal concentrations of toxic or radioactive substances – ultimately affected over 49 million Americans, the New York Times said.

While the report acknowledged that regulators were informed in each instance a violation occurred, the report also found that fewer than 6 percent of the water systems that broke the law were ever fined or punished by state or federal officials, including those at the EPA whose job is to ultimately enforce safety standards.   

In addition to the Times report, a recent Associated Press investigation revealed that roughly one in five schools in America with its own water supply violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. The study established that water supplies at thousands of schools have been found to contain unsafe levels of lead, pesticides, and countless other toxins.

Contaminated drinking water has surfaced at public and private schools in all 50 states.      

At the federal level, the crusade against dirty drinking water is being led by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate committee responsible for overseeing the EPA. In response to written inquiries by Sen. Boxer, the EPA confirmed that, since 2005, millions of Americans had been exposed to illegal levels of toxins such as arsenic and radioactive elements in their drinking water. However, federal data showed that the majority of these violations went unpunished.

Regulators cite a lack of available resources as the cause of soft regulation. “There is significant
reluctance within the EPA and Justice Department to bring actions against the municipalities,” said David Uhlmann, who headed the environmental crimes division at the EPA until 2007. “There’s a view that they are often cash-strapped, and fines would ultimately be paid by local taxpayers.”

According to Sen. Boxer, the problem stems from a “lack of national strategy for monitoring schools’ water supplies.” Today she will press EPA officials to explain how the agency oversees and enforces drinking water quality and what they can do to improve the current situation.

The hearings are expected to prompt immediate action within the EPA, as the agency has said it will soon announce a new policy for how it polices the nation’s thousands of water systems.

However, some officials remain skeptical. One EPA regulator told the Times, “The same people who told us to ignore the Safe Drinking Water Act violations are still running the divisions. There’s no accountability, and so nothing’s going to change.”