How Clean Is Your Drinking Water?

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

ByABC News
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.