Collaboration in Civic Spheres

GAO: EPA still failing to safeguard drinking water

by July 22nd, 2011

SUMMARY: The head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s division of Natural Resources and Environment, David Trimble recently testified to a senate committee that the Environmental Protection Agency continues to fail scientifically and procedurally to adequately safeguard the nation’s drinking water, and is giving short shrift to potentially serious public health effects of drinking water contaminants from pesticides, heavy metals and surface runoff. Trimble told Senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee that to meet its responsibilities in implementing the Safe Water Drinking Act, EPA needs to address shortcomings in measuring contaminants, checking data, and providing administrative oversight.


Since its inception in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act has been used to monitor water quality in the United States. The Safe Drinking Water Act gives the EPA authority to monitor and regulate quality standards for all drinking water in the United States. In 1996, oversight provisions of the act were strengthened, establishing EPA-approved testing operator standards for each state, and requiring EPA to begin issuing reports on testing practices. Periodically, the act has been updated to deal with new contaminants and change regulations. This report by the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, outlines current gaps in the Act and how the EPA should correct them.

KEY LINK: “Safe Drinking Water Act: Improvements In Implementation Are Needed To Better Assure The Public Of Safe Drinking Water,” Testimony of David C. Trimble, Director of Natural Resources and Environment, Government Acountability Office, to Committee on Environment and Public Works, U.S. Senate, July 12, 2011


  • In his testimony Trimble expresses GAO’s deep concern about known contaminants in the water supply, from sources such as pesticides, heavy metals and surface runoff, that go unregulated and unchecked. The EPA needs more data on such contaminants and the effects on human health over the long term in order to make clearer decisions on water regulation. EPA is looking over a list of 116 contaminants and finalizing which contaminants, with the greatest public health implications, to prioritize.
  • The Office of Water within the EPA needs to work hand in hand with the agency’s top leaders to help establish criteria and stricter guidelines within the Safe Water Act. One example is an insecticide called dieldrin which has been banned for use since 1987. By using a much higher threshold for this pollutant than the United States Geological Survey, EPA found it to be present in water samples at only one-fifth the rate of USGS.
  • The EPA needs to focus on contaminants that are harmful to higher-risk populations such as the children, the sick and the elderly. The vulnerabilities of these groups, especially children, should more clearly drive decisions on what contaminants should be regulated. In 1995, the EPA published new policy addressing children’s environmental health, including water safety. However the Office of Water in the EPA has not issued follow-up policies specifically directed toward children.
  • GAO wants the EPA’s assessments to use clearer data and better communicate its findings. For example, perchlorate, a chemical that can change hormone balances and growth in early child development, was given a more limited review than other chemicals, despite its risk to children. Perchlorate is currently unregulated, but GAO would like a closer study of its effects and amount in the water supply. Independent scientists who looked at the EPA’s testing on perchlorate said the risks to pregnant women weren’t sufficiently examined, even though according to the EPA they are the most sensitive subpopulation. Trimble described EPA’s data on perchlorate as lacking for certain populations, and lacking a statement of methodological validity.
  • GAO already gave EPA an earlier draft of 17 recommendations to better safeguard drinking water, but EPA agreed with only two of the 17, not including GAO’s policy and methodological recommendations on how to accomplish the goals of the Safe Water Act. By accepting and acting upon more of GAO’s recommendations, EPA could wring crucial benefit from drinking water quality data. This in turn should drive its decisions on what additional contaminants should be regulated in the water supply.

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One Response to “GAO: EPA still failing to safeguard drinking water”

  1. […] Don’t drink the water? The director of the U.S. Government Accountability Office of Natural Resources and Environment testified to a senate committee that the Environmental Protection Agency continues to fail to adequately safeguard the nation’s drinking water. David Trimble said the EPA’s lack of focus on potential impacts of certain toxic agents and pollutants in the nation’s public drinking water requires more rigorous science and procedures. Via Public Data Ferret. […]