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GAO to EPA: Improve Implementation of Safe Drinking Water Act

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

By Jason Rano, EWG Senior Legislative Analyst, Morgan Andersen, EWG Summer Government Affairs Assistant, and Alex Keller, EWG Summer Water Analyst

A Government Accountability Office investigation released last week has found that the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to protect drinking water and public health from dangerous contaminants are inadequate.

During a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works, David Trimble, GAO Director of Natural Resources and Environment, testified that in 2003 and 2008, EPA's unregulated contaminant monitoring program decided not to regulate 20 contaminants.

These decisions were based on data availability, not concern about public health, Trimble said. The agency lacked significant occurrence and health effect data, the GAO found, because it did not require testing for nine contaminants, as the law permits. Some of the data the agency acquired was collected with insensitive methods. EPA Needs Better Internal Guidance and Policies The report by the GAO, Congress's watchdog arm, emphasized that the agency needed to develop better internal guidance and policies to carry out its responsibilities under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. In 11 of the 20 decisions EPA's Office of Water did not consider children's health as required by law and failed to develop specific testing levels for children.

Part of the problem, according to GAO, was that the agency has not developed internal guidance on when and how to analyze the effects of contaminants on children. The GAO concluded that EPA has not defined when a contaminant is of great public health concern and has not developed a process to decide which contaminants merit higher priority for study. The report singled out EPA's dismissal of the risks of perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket fuel and munitions. The report found that this decision, made by the Bush administration in 2008, was not based on a full, publicly visible review of the available scientific evidence. The Obama administration reversed the decision soon after taking office.

Robert Perciasepe, EPA's deputy administrator, responded that the agency was moving to address many of these shortcomings and to act more rapidly and transparently. He said that the agency hoped to increase efficiency by regulating multiple similar chemicals as a group and that it was giving priority to the protection of vulnerable populations such as women and children.

What about Chromium-6? Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) asked whether residents of Norman, Okla., are at risk from chromium-6 in drinking water. EWG fans will remember from our December 2010 report, "Cancer-causing Chromium-6 Pollution in U.S. Tap Water," that Norman had the highest detected level of hexavalent chromium of 35 city water supplies tested.

Dr. Steven Patierno, head of the George Washington University Cancer Institute and a defense witness in chromium-6 lawsuits, testified that Norman residents are "absolutely not" at risk. After his statement, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) sharply questioned his credibility and told him "[i]f people came with your attitude and... appeared in court in favor of the defense we wouldn't get anywhere....That's just not going to get us anywhere when money gets involved in the equation."

The National Toxicology Program, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, has developed what it calls "strong evidence" that water containing chromium-6 causes cancer in lab animals. An EPA draft toxicology assessment released last September also cited significant cancer concerns.

Chairwoman Boxer said she and the committee would look closely at the EPA's progress in implementing the GAO report's recommendations to ensure that all Americans, particularly women and children, have access to reliably safe drinking water. We certainly hope they do. It would be hard for the agency to do any less.

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