Lax oversight raises tap water risks

When it comes to the nation’s drinking water, there’s no punishment for pollution.

Each day, millions of Americans turn on their tappharma and get water that exceeds
legal limits for dangerous contaminants. Millions more get water that isn’t treated or
tested properly, so there’s no telling if it’s clean. Many people get sick. A few of them
die. And most of the time, nobody does anything about it.

A USA TODAY investigation finds that the federal and state programs charged with
enforcing the nation’s safe drinking water laws aren’t working, undermined by
inadequate funding, inaccurate data, a soft regulatory approach and weak political
support. Even the worst violations of drinking water laws have just a 1 in 10 chance
of drawing legal action by the government.

At the same time, powerful new pollutants imperil the water supply, from hard-to-kill
bacteria to industrial and agricultural toxins. Yet water systems increasingly rely on
aging pipelines, deficient treatment equipment and poorly trained operators to make
the water safe.

USA TODAY did hundreds of interviews and undertook a computer analysis of millions
of records from the nation’s 170,000 regulated water systems covering 1993-97,
from the largest serving 6.6 million people in New York City to tiny operations with
just 25 customers, such as Hanks Trading Post in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Next year will be the 25th year that the Safe Drinking Water Act has been law. But
the newspaper’s investigation found that grave problems diminish its promise:

About 40,000 of the 170,000 water systems, serving about 58 million people, violated
testing requirements and purity standards last year. About 9,500 water systems,
serving 25 million people, had ”significant” violations, which the Environmental Protection Agency defines as posing the ”most serious threats to public health.” From 1994 through
the start of 1997, only about 10% of all significant violations drew enforcement action
from government regulators. In fact, fewer fines and lawsuits are imposed under safe
drinking water laws than any other major environmental statute.

More than a quarter of all significant violators have been in that category for at least
three years. Among systems with significant violations at the end of 1996, for example,
35% still were out of compliance as of Aug. 1 — a year past the eight-month legal
deadline to return to compliance or sign a binding agreement to do so.
Eleven states have yet to implement all of the Safe Drinking Water Act’s contamination
limits. At least 13 states don’t meet federal guidelines dictating that they inspect water systems every three to five years. A half-dozen have not given their water programs
the authority to levy fines.

The EPA has overlooked states’ failure to uphold safe drinking water laws. It never has
used its authority to take control of a state regulatory program, and the agency is
more than a year behind in completing required assessments of the drinking water
programs in at least 11 states.

The computer database that serves as the EPA’s primary tool to monitor the
170,000 public water systems is so flawed that even the government acknowledges
that, used alone, it’s an inaccurate measure of which systems provide clean water
from the tap.

None of this is to say that most Americans don’t get clean water — they do. The
vast majority of people are served by large water systems with good records; most
serious problems crop up in small systems.

Regulators and water system operators rightly note that the 40,000 water systems
that violated safe drinking water laws in 1997 constitute less than a quarter of all
systems nationwide. The 9,500 systems with ”significant” violations make up only 6%.

But experts warn that the combination of poor enforcement and growing threats to
water purity is bound to lead to trouble.

”The attitude is, ‘Until there’s a big body count, there’s not a problem,’ ” says
James Elder, former head of the EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.
”We haven’t documented many major outbreaks, so everybody claims the (regulatory)
system is working.”

New contamination threats

Most academic and government studies suggest that a million or so Americans suffer gastrointestinal sicknesses each year from bad drinking water, and as many as 1,000
may die. In some areas, water contamination is suspected in cancers, miscarriages
and birth defects. And the growing number of people who live with weak immune
systems — chemotherapy patients, transplant recipients, people with AIDS —
means the toll is likely to rise.

But no one knows for sure.

The most common symptoms of waterborne illness, nausea and diarrhea, usually get
blamed on stomach flus or bad food. So, while the government has for years listed contaminated drinking water as a top environmental health threat — the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention says people with immune deficiencies should
consider boiling all tap water — there’s been little call for strong regulation.

”Right now, we’ve got a sleepy (regulatory) program nationwide, and we have a
public that just assumes it will get clean water,” says Steven Walden of Texas’
Water Utilities Division, a relatively aggressive oversight operation.

”But we’ve got . . . a lot of new threats to worry about,” Walden adds. ”And with
drinking water competing for resources with everything from roads to libraries . . .
there’s not much support for spending money to make (the program) work.”

Consequences are everywhere: For five years, Boston has failed to meet
requirements that it filter its water; in DeKalb, Ill., the water has exceeded federal
its for radium since they were imposed 22 years ago; in Ottawa County, Ohio, the
Gem Beach Utility Co. has refused since 1994 to meet treatment requirements for the
water it draws directly from nearby Lake Erie.

Most water problems tend to be in places no one has heard of: little towns, mobile
home parks, rest stops, private developments. Their smaller water systems are more
likely to lack the equipment and staff needed to meet legal standards — and more
likely to escape regulators’ attention.

The last time a major waterborne illness hit a big city was 1993, when a parasite in
Milwaukee’s water killed 111 people and made 403,000 sick. It remains the worst
outbreak in modern U.S. history, but there have been others since, from Las Vegas
to Austin, Texas, to Alpine, Wyo.

Americans are beginning to notice: A recent USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll found
47% of respondents won’t drink water straight from the tap.

Congress and the Clinton administration have tried to address the concerns.
They revamped the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996, providing more loans and
grants to help water systems and state oversight programs comply with the law.
Next year, utilities will start sending consumers detailed water quality reports.

”The law certainly has made the situation much better than it would be otherwise,”
says Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who helped shape many of its provisions. ”But
we’ve got to push for stricter enforcement and greater commitment (to compliance).
We still have very serious problems.”

Illness in a small town

If state regulators had been making the required inspections of the water system
at The Corner Store in Groveland, N.Y., they would have seen an accident waiting
to happen.

But they never came.

They never found that the popular convenience shop, which sold gas, beer,
sandwiches and pizza, had a broken chlorinator and no filtration for the water
from its shallow well. They never told the store’s operators that the water system
had to meet legal standards.

On June 22, 1996, John and Loretta Linsner paid the price.

The couple had The Corner Store cater a high school graduation party for their
daughter, and bacteria from the store’s water got into the food. Salmonella and
Plesiomonas shigelloides, a rare tropical bug, poisoned the Linsners and more than
100 friends and family. They were racked by diarrhea and nausea.

”It was terrible,” John Linsner says. ”All I could do was go from bed to the bathroom.
I couldn’t even walk. . . . Our (83-year-old) neighbor had to go to the hospital in an ambulance.”

The Linsners’ story is typical: Small water systems serving 500 people or fewer
account for 86% of all systems with significant violations of drinking water laws.

These systems can be in remote towns or in suburban developments, mobile
home parks or other communities that haven’t hooked up with major water supplies.
They can serve small businesses, rest areas or public facilities such as schools and

”In the big city, there’s more (oversight) and money to spend on good water
systems,” says Susan Seacrest, formerly on EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory
Board and now head of the Groundwater Foundation. ”Go to small towns, everything
looks clean, but many have decrepit systems that no one pays attention to. Then
you go to a farm or a little store with a shallow well and no treatment . . . and you
better bring bottled water.”

In The Corner Store’s case, the New York Department of Health, which regulates water systems, didn’t even know there was a system they should have been checking. The
agency hadn’t registered it.

”The treatment certainly wasn’t adequate for the kind of water source (the store) had,”
says Michael Burke, director of New York’s Bureau of Public Water Supply. ”They
should have been monitoring (for contaminants). They should have had an annual

Investigators eventually tied the contamination to waste washed into the store’s
well from a poultry farm and manure-covered fields.

Burke says the total lack of oversight was an anomaly but concedes that state
regulators have trouble keeping tabs on the smallest of New York’s 10,000 water

”Our problems,” he says, ”are no different than the problems you’re seeing

In one respect, the Linsners got lucky: The bacteria that hit them can kill babies,
elderly people and others with weak immune systems.

Now, the Linsners test their well water. They never drink water at campgrounds
and avoid it in restaurants and rest areas. They even wonder about it at church socials.

”People say, ‘Oh, we have good water. We won’t have a problem,’ ” Linsner says.
”But they don’t know.”

A troubled law

The Safe Drinking Water Act is a tough one to follow — and a tough one to

Passed in 1974, the law requires any water system serving 25 or more people to
regularly test its water and comply with contamination limits.

But over time, the law has grown increasingly complex. It has been amended again
and again to meet the new threats posed by tougher bacteria, industrial waste and
agricultural runoff. Water systems, which were required to test for 13 contaminants,
now must test and treat for more than 80 substances, from pesticides and fertilizers
to such naturally occurring toxins as radon.

States are supposed to enforce the rules with their own oversight programs,
empowered to go after lawbreaking water systems with orders, fines and lawsuits.
The EPA is supposed to take action when a state does not — and take over a state’s
water program if it consistently fails to do its job.

It’s not happening. Why?

Money. Financial problems undermine drinking water laws at every level.
The nation’s 55,000 water systems that serve residential communities need $12
billion in new equipment and pipelines to meet legal requirements, according to a
1997 EPA study.

”Some utilities willfully violate (drinking water rules) because they don’t like the
regulations, but usually it’s a matter of not having resources” to fix a problem, says
Bevin Beaudet, past chief of Palm Beach County (Fla.) Water Utilities and a board
member at the American Water Works Association, a major industry group.

Pursuing every violation is ”beyond the states’ resources,” adds Dave Spath, chief
of California’s drinking water division. ”We deal first with larger systems that have
‘significant’ problems. With smaller systems, which may have an equal public health
risk but to a far smaller population . . . you get to whatever you can.”

State officials complain Congress doesn’t provide the funds promised by the Safe
Drinking Water Act. Federal grants typically pay 40% of state program costs; states
say 75% is proper.

And EPA lacks the resources to step in when states fail. This year, the agency will
devote $5.1 million and roughly 80 staff members to enforcing drinking water laws —
about a quarter of what it allots to policing air pollution.

Approach. Regulators often take a soft tack with lawbreaking water systems.
”The people who run these systems aren’t polluters; Their interest is in providing good
water,” says Mike Keegan of the National Rural Water Association, which represents
small systems. ”They shouldn’t be treated like paint manufacturers or poultry operations.”

In fact, a 1997 EPA study found 4,258 water systems nationwide with a chronic
history of significant violations of drinking water laws and found that most lacked
needed equipment or operator expertise. Only 568, or 13%, were seen as ”recalcitrant,” meaning they had no interest in compliance.

Lawsuits and fines ”are a last resort,” says David Leland, head of Oregon’s drinking
water program and chief of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators.
”We take a more helpful approach. It’s not the traditional idea that we have to hammer
these folks because they’re polluting.”

In 1997, states and the EPA issued fines against only 215 water systems for violations
of safe drinking water laws. At the federal level, the EPA levied just $17,600 in
administrative penalties nationwide. That’s the lowest amount under any major
environmental law and compares to $3 million in such fines filed against air pollutors.

Politics. Cities, towns and counties run a third of all regulated water systems.
Many others — private systems run by businesses, homeowners associations or
resorts — also have a public constituency.
So, if regulators order a system to buy required equipment or fine it for failing to
meet a legal standard, it creates budget strains and tax burdens.

”Not infrequently, you get a call from a political official — a governor, a member
of Congress,” says John DeVillars, EPA’s New England regional administrator. ”They
say, ‘What are you doing? This isn’t popular.’ ”

DeVillars and other regulators believe drinking water laws can work, despite political
fallout. But the toll is clear.

Eleven states haven’t even implemented all the Safe Drinking Water Act’s rules.
The last of those rules should have been in place by mid-995.

California, for example, still lacks requirements that water systems check lead
or copper contamination; Virginia hasn’t adopted limits on chemical and radiological contaminants.

Yet the EPA has never taken over a drinking water program.

”The message is it’s OK to violate the law,” says Erik Olson of the Natural
Resources Defense Council. ”You can fill a telephone book with excuses, but
the bottom line is we have water systems that are repeat, significant violators
and they’re getting off scot-free.”

was it the water?

In DeKalb, Ill., the notion that money and politics steer enforcement of drinking
water laws does little to ease the pain of Kathleen and Lon Clark.

For 22 years, state studies found DeKalb’s water has had up to twice the legal
limit of radium, a naturally occurring, radioactive element linked to bone cancer,
leukemia and other illnesses. Three years ago, the Clarks’ 10-year-old son, Max,
died of bone cancer. Medical science never will know what caused Max’s illness.

But ”we’ll always wonder if it was the water,” says Kathleen Clark, an accountant,
who blames officials’ inaction for the questions that haunt her family. ”DeKalb should
have been taking radium seriously all along.”

The story of how DeKalb and hundreds of other communities evade radium rules
speaks worlds about the breakdown in enforcement of drinking water laws, pitting
human health against budget concerns, science against politics.

In 1976, under Congress’ orders, the EPA set a ”safe” limit for radium — one that,
based on scientific estimates, would allow for no more than one radium-related
death among every 10,000 people relying on a contaminated water supply.

In Illinois alone, about 80 water systems serving 322,000 people still exceed that

State and local officials say they don’t enforce the rule because, among other
things, compliance is too costly: Scores of communities would need expensive
treatment equipment. In DeKalb, pop. 35,000, costs would run over $8 million,
or more than $230 per person.

Critics also cite continuing scientific debate over how high the radium limit
should be.

”There’s a question of cost vs. health risk,” says Ronald Matekaitis, DeKalb’s city
attorney, who contends the radium threat doesn’t justify the cleanup tab. ”You can
always make everybody’s environment safer, but how much money should you commit?”

Such questions prompted the EPA to agree in 1988 to review the radium standard —
a process now extended until 2000.

For now, the old standard remains in place, and the resulting wait-and-see has
effectively meant that neither state officials nor regional EPA managers has pursued enforcement.

In DeKalb, however, that has upset many residents.

”I’m willing to pay a lot more in taxes for clean water than things like roads or parks,”
says Jim Lahey, a retired accounting professor. ”Health comes first.”

Lahey and 10 other residents sued DeKalb in 1996 to force compliance with radium
rules for drinking water. Last year, an agreement ended the lawsuit without a trial,
and the city has said it will meet the radium standard, but not until 2002.

Today, DeKalb blends its well water with cleaner supplies to lower radium levels,
but even so, state estimates find that tap water still exceeds the limit by 50%.

Tough road ahead

State and federal regulators say the problems with enforcement of drinking water
laws haven’t gone unnoticed, and many hope the answers lie in Congress’ 1996
amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act.

”In the last three or four years, we began to see (enforcement) actions on the
part of the states drop off dramatically, and that was tremendous cause for
concern,” says Robert Perciasepe, who until August was the EPA’s top administrator
for water. ”There are problems that need to be dealt with. We’re changing the
system to address the underlying issues.”

But there already are indications that one of the changes seen as most
important — more money for water programs — won’t make much difference.

Federal funding for drinking water programs has climbed 30% since 1996,
to $93.8 million this year.

The added federal funding is a step in the right direction, says Steven Gordon,
president of the American Water Works Association and director of Detroit’s water
system. But it ”isn’t going to help much.”

This year, for example, Michigan’s share of that money ends up being about
$30 million, Gordon says, compared with a ”capital budget for drinking water,
just for Detroit, (at) about $2 billion. Those numbers aren’t good.”

”The grants are up, but we’re still way short,” adds David Leland, the Oregon drinking
water chief. ”We can only do what’s required . . . to the tune of what the feds give
us to run our program.”

And what is not required is a step many see as crucial to the success of drinking
water laws: inspecting systems to catch problems before they occur.

Federal guidelines say states should perform ”sanitary surveys” once every three
years for larger water systems, once every five for others. But those are guidelines,
and 13 states don’t adhere to them.

Oregon regulators did 570 sanitary surveys from 1993-96. That would average
out to one survey every 19 years for each of the state’s 2,700 water systems,
USA TODAY found.

Connecticut, Indiana, Washington and Alaska averaged at least 11 years between
surveys in 1993-96. Hawaii didn’t survey any of its 148 systems in that time.

As far back as 1992, congressional investigators at the General Accounting Office
were urging stronger sanitary survey rules. One report called surveys ”one of the most effective tools states can use to help ensure compliance (with drinking water standards)
and correct problems before they become serious.”

Yet neither the Safe Drinking Water Act amendments nor any related EPA rules set
binding survey requirements.

The toll

This summer, the tiny town of Alpine, Wyo., permanent population 470, felt the
brunt of the nation’s trouble in enforcing its safe drinking water laws.

When all was said and done, the town’s water had infected scores of people with
E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. And the potentially deadly contaminant, until now associated
mainly with food, was established as a serious threat to water.

”We always thought we had the best water in the world,” Mayor Donn Wooden says.
”We’ve learned a lot.”

Wyoming is the only state that hasn’t implemented any Safe Drinking Water Act rules.
The state has no regulatory program for drinking water. It has repeatedly declined
federal requests to set one up.

So it’s up to the EPA to regulate the more than 700 public water systems in Wyoming.
And the federal agency does that — from Denver.

”We provide as much public health protection as we can,” says Jack Rychecky, w
ho heads the EPA’s Wyoming program. ”It’s awfully hard to be overseeing water systems
in Wyoming from Denver.”

In Alpine, the EPA hadn’t yet completed a review meant to determine whether town
water, drawn from a local spring, needed chlorination or other treatment. The analysis
would have shown that the water was at risk for contamination from surface runoff.

The threat was realized just before July 4, when the people of Alpine began turning up
sick, many with the bloody diarrhea that signals E. coli’s sometimes fatal attack on
intestinal blood vessels.

State and federal health officials swarmed in, ultimately concluding the contamination
probably came from animal waste that washed into the town’s spring. They found 68
confirmed cases and at least 150 suspected cases of E. coli poisoning. Nineteen
people were hospitalized; two children and one adult were in critical condition; no one

Rychecky says the EPA has ”taken the lessons of to heart” and is scrambling to
finish assessing Wyoming’s water systems.

And there’s new recognition that it takes vigilance to assure clean water, no
matter how pristine the surroundings.

Says Mayor Wooden: ”It’s like a fly flying around in a room, and the fly happened
to land in our glass.”

Hard lessons: John and Loretta Linsner, and more than 100 friends and family, got
sick from food prepared with bad water from a convenience shop in Groveland, N.Y.
Haunted by questions: Kathleen and Lon Clark of DeKalb, Ill., say they’ll always
wonder if it was the water that led to bone cancer that killed their son Max.

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