In The Drink

The Weakening of the Safe Water Drinking Act

June 1, 1995

In The Drink: About the Report

All information presented in this report was based upon information contained in the EPA's Federal Reporting Data System (FRDS), a database maintained by EPA. The Environmental Working Group obtained the FRDS database, which contains over 300,000 records, via the Freedom of Information Act.

EPA maintains the FRDS database as a repository of compliance information on the Safe Drinking Water Act. States are responsible for entering all violation information into the database, and correcting any data errors.

The EPA FRDS data presented here significantly underestimate the number of systems out of compliance with the Act's health standards. First, many water utilities are not performing required testing, and thus are not detecting and reporting drinking water problems. In 1993-94, 52 million people, 20% of the nation's population, were served water by a utility that violated a SDWA monitoring requirement.

Second, many states are failing to report drinking water systems that are in violation of federal health standards. A 1990 GAO investigation found numerous instances where violations of the SDWA known to states were not reported as violations to EPA (GAO 1990). A 1988 investigation by EPA's Inspector General reported similar findings (EPA Inspector General 1988). And in 1992-93, 18 states reported no violations of chemical or radiological MCL standards (NRDC 1994). This is not because there is perfect compliance with standards in these states, but because these states are failing to report violations. The GAO concluded that, although there were a few instances of over reporting in EPA data, in the vast majority of cases many violations went unreported. Because of this rampant under reporting, the fact that a water system does not appear to have any reported violations should not necessarily be taken to mean that the system has not exceeded EPA health standards.

The following information from FRDS was used in this report.

  • Inventory information on each of the 185,000 drinking water systems in the United States, including names, locations, and population served.
  • Records of 235,000 violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act's Maximum Contaminant Level standards, violations of Surface Water Treatment Rule treatment technique requirements and SDWA monitoring, reporting, and notification requirements (which direct water systems to test the water for chemicals and microorganisms to ensure safety and inform the public of any problems).
  • Lead milestone data, containing 12,000 records of water system activity as part of EPA's Lead and Copper Rule. Included in this database is information pertaining to whether water systems have exceeded EPA's Lead Action Level, an indication of increased health risks from lead.