EPA examines water quality reporting

Guy Gugliotta - Washington Post


WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general is investigating whether the agency is deliberately misleading the public by overstating the purity of the nation's drinking water, according to EPA officials and agency documents.

The inquiry was launched June 18, five days before then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman released the "Draft Report on the Environment," which stated that "94 percent of the population served by community water systems were served by systems that met all health-based standards."

Internal agency documents, however, show that EPA audits for at least five years have suggested that the percentage of the population with safe drinking water is much lower -- 79 to 84 percent in 2002 -- putting an additional 30 million Americans at potential risk.

EPA officials said the draft report and other public documents routinely add a caveat stating, "underreporting and late reporting of data affect the accuracy" of the calculations. But agency sources said the inspector general was questioning the disclaimers' adequacy and honesty, given EPA's own long-term skepticism about the 94 percent figure.

"We do have a study ongoing to look at the quality of the information that was used," said Dan Engleberg, Director for Program Evaluation for Water Issues for the inspector general's office. "We're looking at what EPA reports to Congress and the public."

EPA bases its statements and documents about safe drinking water on data collected by states from their utilities for about 100 contaminants and pollutants, including toxic metals such as arsenic, industrial chemicals and fecal matter. Peter Shanaghan, chief of staff of EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, said the agency first became aware of data collection problems when several utilities suggested in 1998 that the "unreported" or "erroneously" reported violations included both "health-based" problems with contaminants and "monitoring and reporting" errors dealing with procedures and testing.

By 2001, the briefing said, "overall data quality improved from 50 percent to 65 percent" but "is still not adequate." Because of continued discrepancies, "some unknown percentage of systems may have health-based violations (that are) not being determined and reported -- people may in fact be at some health risk!"

Shanaghan said EPA has opened a new compliance audit to develop a second reliability action plan. "The partnership we have with the states is to improve the quality of the reporting," Shanaghan said. "We're very pleased with the progress, and we believe we're seeing increased levels of compliance."

Throughout five years of audits, Shanaghan added, the EPA has made no secret of the difficulty in obtaining accurate water quality data.

Erik Olson, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he was consulted when the working group was formed, and acknowledged that EPA had been "straight shooters" in private conversations about the reporting system's shortcomings, but had "seriously misrepresented" the problem's scope in public utterances.

Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association of public and private utilities, agreed the EPA's drinking water data was "not very robust," but added, "we think there is very little health concern. ... I'm not going to defend 94 percent, but I don't think it's 79 percent either."

Despite its own misgivings, EPA has continued to release official figures on drinking water showing the percentage of Americans with safe water rising from 79 percent in 1993 to 94 percent in 2002. Meanwhile, the agency has not related its own auditors' concerns about the figure's accuracy.

"Statistical analysis ... indicates this number (in 2002) may be in the range of 75 percent to 84 percent," the March briefing said, and "may be lower yet because of unreported monitoring and reporting violations that could be masking health-based violations." The briefing suggested the official estimate should be 81 percent.

"States assure EPA that even though not all violations are reported when they should be, the drinking water delivered to the public is safe," the briefing said. But "given the significant underreporting," it said, "this conclusion will not likely be accepted by the public, and environmental and consumer organizations."


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