How Clean Is Your Drinking Water?

EPA plan to improve drinking water hits wave of congressional skepticism.

December 8, 2009, 3:19 PM

Dec. 8, 2009— -- Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were under fire today as members of Congress demanded an explanation into reports that the agency has not enforced violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The enforcement chief at the EPA responded by announcing new enforcement protocols designed to determine the most serious and repeating water pollution offenders and established a new mechanism to hold violators responsible.

"The new enforcement approach that we announced today is intended to target the violations that we find," Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance at the EPA, said. "What we are doing is implementing a targeting system that will identify the health threats where there's violation of health-based standards, and especially where there's been repeated violations at a system, and put those to the top of the list for enforcement potential."

The chairwoman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., dismissed Giles' plan as "bureaucratic rhetoric," emphasizing that state and local water quality agencies are the first line of defense to ensure the water is safe enough to drink.

"We already know kids are being exposed to these contaminants and they're deadly and we already know there are problems," Boxer said. "We're not tracking schools, we're tracking public systems. And we don't know which public systems serve the schools. I need a lot more specificity from you. I'm not confident that we are now ready to go."

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 does not authorize the EPA to monitor schools directly. Instead, the agency depends on the schools' water providers to comply with its monitoring requirements, and it relies on states to enforce violations.

A New York Times report published today said that more than 49 million people in the United States were exposed to drinking water containing illegal concentrations of chemicals like arsenic and radioactive substances, such as uranium. The report also found that just 6 percent of drinking water violations were actually enforced since 2004.

Jeffrey K. Griffiths, a public health and infectious diseases physician at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, said that combined sewer and overflow systems are regularly overwhelmed by flooding, and thus contaminate drinking water with fertilizers and sewage.

"We all know it is bad to have poop in our water," Griffiths said. "Do we really want pregnant women, babies, and children to drink water with high levels of contaminants during periods of sensitivity? I should think not."

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., questioned whether the water he was drinking in the committee room was safe enough to drink, and pushed members from both parties to work with EPA to update and improve the nation's water infrastructure.

"We need to make sure that we keep the pollutants out of the water that are causing concern," Cardin said. "I would just urge a more aggressive plan, and first understanding the science, but also keeping these pollutants out of our water."

Griffiths agreed that Congress should work to aid utilities to ensure that drinking water is not contaminated and adopt modern treatment technologies to address the growing cocktail of industrial chemicals that threaten the water supply.

"We must hold our drinking water providers accountable for their lapses," Griffiths testified. "If we choose to do these things, we will be healthier and we will have spent less money in the long run, and we will have acted as good stewards of this precious resource."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said he was troubled by evidence that shows chemicals and other substances are polluting the nation's water supply, including chemicals he says contaminate water at such high concentration that the mixture is toxic enough to set aflame.

"Right now there are more than 140 chemicals in our drinking water that EPA doesn't regulate, according to a recent study," Lautenberg said. "In some parts of the country, chemicals, including gasoline, additive pesticides, even rocket fuel [contaminate the water supply]. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you shouldn't be drinking rocket fuel."