Drinking Water:

Consumers Often Not Well-informed of Potentially Serious Violations

RCED-92-135: Published: Jun 25, 1992. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 1992.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the quality and safety of the public drinking water supply, focusing on: (1) public water systems' compliance with and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act's requirements for notification of public drinking water safety violations; and (2) the requirements' effectiveness in ensuring that the public is informed of violations, without unduly burdening water system operators.

GAO found that: (1) water system operators notified the public of only 58 of the 157 act violations that GAO identified and complied with the act's timeliness requirement in only 17 of those instances; (2) 103 of the remaining 140 violations posed serious long-term health risks; (3) limited involvement, oversight, and enforcement of public notification regulations by states and EPA contribute to noncompliance by water system operators; (4) difficulty in understanding and implementing public notification regulations by water system operators leads to further noncompliance; (5) public notices of violations often include confusing technical language and omit pertinent preventive measures; and (6) focusing on more serious violations provides water system operators with a cost-effective opportunity for greater compliance with state and federal laws and regulations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In revising its regulations on public notification, EPA made a number of changes to address the recommendations in the report. A major component of the changes was simplifying the mandatory language on the health effects of drinking water contaminants to make sure that the public clearly understands the health risks associated with the violations. EPA promulgated very simple health effects language to be used in the new Consumer Confidence Reports and, in its revised the public notification rule,is requiring that this same language be used in public notices.

    Recommendation: In order to inform the public about the violations of drinking water standards in a timely and effective manner, the Administrator, EPA, should improve the agency's recommended and mandatory passages for notices by simplifying the language and presenting the passages in a way that highlights the health risks posed by violations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The newly reauthorized Safe Drinking Water Act made several changes to the public notification requirements to inform consumers of violations of drinking water regulations. It also includes a provision requiring community water systems to prepare and disseminate an annual report that provides consumers with information concerning their source water and contaminants found in the drinking water, even if the levels are in compliance with federal regulations. EPA must now change its public notification regulations and add a requirement for consumer confidence reports. As part of this, EPA will consider the recommendations that GAO has made to improve public notification.

    Recommendation: In order to inform the public about the violations of drinking water standards in a timely and effective manner, the Administrator, EPA, should work with states to identify methods that states could use to help operators, particularly of small water systems, understand when public notification is required and what types of notice are required under different circumstances.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA believes that limited enforcement resources should be directed only against violators of public notification requirements when there is also a violation of contaminant or monitoring requirements and that this is currently the case. EPA plans no further action.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should emphasize to regional and state drinking water officials that violations of the public notification requirements should be considered for enforcement action (beyond a routine reminder) pursuant to the agency's enforcement policy, even when the action would not be included in a broader enforcement action involving other program requirements.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA maintains that states are already required to report public notification violations to FRDS and that the states are aware of this requirement. EPA intends no further action.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should require states to submit to EPA information on water systems' compliance with the public notification requirement for inclusion in the Federal Reporting Data System (FRDS).

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA agrees that implementation of the recommendation may streamline the notification process and is considering what changes may be warranted as the Safe Drinking Water Act goes through reauthorization. EPA has done research and held focus groups on these issues. However, EPA has decided not to go forward with rulemaking until after the act is reauthorized.

    Recommendation: In order to inform the public about the violations of drinking water standards in a timely and effective manner, the Administrator, EPA, should improve the effectiveness of notification by: (1) allowing water systems the flexibility to choose, with the state's concurrence, the method most appropriate for their consumers; (2) requiring the use of more prominent space when newspaper notice is used; and (3) allowing water systems to consolidate notices for Tier II violations into a semiannual or annual report, thus focusing notification on more serious violations

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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