Millions of people in the Bay watershed and nationwide are drinking water from systems that have violated federal Safe Drinking Water standards, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Pennsylvania had the worst performance in the Bay region, and the third highest number of total violations of any state nationwide, according to the NRDC. That finding came on the heels of a recent warning from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection is so understaffed it can’t provide adequate oversight of drinking water systems in the state.
“America is facing a nationwide drinking water crisis that goes well beyond lead contamination,” said Erik Olson, the NRDC health program director and a report co-author. “The problem is two-fold: There’s no cop on the beat enforcing our drinking water laws, and we’re living on borrowed time with our ancient, deteriorating water infrastructure. We take it for granted that when we turn on our kitchen tap, the water will be safe and healthy, but we have a long way to go before that is reality across our country.”
The environmental group’s review was based on records from the EPA and found that across the nation, state regulators often failed to penalize or even take note of the violations in many cases.
Federal oversight of state regulators is also spotty, according to the NRDC report. Olson warned it could be worse if Congress goes along with the Trump administration’s proposal to slash the EPA’s budget by 31 percent.
“Huge cuts to drinking water programs will reduce EPA enforcement further,” he said, “causing less safe water.”
About 44 percent of Pennsylvania’s 12 million residents who depend on public water supplies were served by water systems with some kind of administrative, procedural or health-related violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, NRDC reported.
When the report zeroed in on the subset of violations that specifically impact public health, such as excessive levels of fecal coliform, nitrites and disinfectant byproducts, the state ranked 13th nationwide, with 700,000 people affected, the NRDC said.
Neil Shader, the DEP’s spokesman, said the report’s data seemed accurate, but called the presentation misleading in some cases.
For example, Shader pointed out, the Philadelphia Water Department had a single violation of monitoring and reporting requirements. But because the utility has 1.6 million customers, the NRDC report “gives the indication of a problem where one might not exist,” he said in an email.
Other Bay states with high rankings in drinking water violations include Maryland, which ranks fourth in terms of population served by water systems with health-related violations.
Maryland's Department of the Environment spokesman had similar issues with the report. The 1.8 million customers of the Baltimore City water system had one violation of a health-based rule in 2015 -- for an excessive level of a disinfectant byproduct -- though fewer than 89,000 people on the system were affected, said Jay Apperson, spokesperson for MDE. When adjusted, Maryland would fall out of the top 10 of systems with violations, he said.
“Safe drinking water is such a critical public health issue that the department acts assertively to see that the vast majority of Safe Drinking Water Act violations that do occur are corrected immediately or following the issuance of a notice of violation,” Apperson said.
In Pennsylvania, steep budget cuts that have contributed to setbacks in its Bay cleanup efforts have also contributed to a growing number of drinking water problems. The EPA said in a letter to the DEP last December that the number of unaddressed violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act has nearly doubled in the last five years.
“This increased risk to public health is of concern to EPA,” the letter said. If the DEP cannot meet federal minimum standards, EPA warned it may take over with managing the state’s drinking water program — which means relieving the state of some federal funding as well.
The DEP has experienced repeated budget cuts over the last decade totaling roughly 40 percent. Department staffing is down 800 people, according to David Hess, former DEP secretary and now a political consultant.
The DEP spokesman said state regulators plan to bolster their oversight of drinking water systems.
“DEP is working to ensure that we have the resources necessary in our Safe Drinking Water Program to ensure that we are finding and preventing violations which jeopardize public health and will propose a regulation package shortly which increases funding for this program,” spokesman Shader said.
The DEP plans to raise permit fees and enact new annual fees on community water systems to come up with the $7.5 million needed to hire 33 new inspectors, Shader said. The fee proposal will be presented May 17 to the state Environmental Quality Board, a 20-member independent body that must approve DEP regulations. Each inspector in the department’s Safe Drinking Water Program is now overseeing158 public water systems — more than twice the national average of 67, according to the National Association of State Drinking Water Administrators.
The EPA letter welcomed Pennsylvania’s plan to hire more inspectors, but said the process to create a rule to raise fees and hire and train the new staff could take up to two years, which the federal agency said is too long to risk public health. The agency said that the DEP should find a temporary source of funds to get the hiring process moving.
The EPA is charged with overseeing federal safety standards that the states carry out and regulates about 100 out of 1,000 known contaminants that could cause everything from a stomach ache to cancer. Nationally, 19.5 million people get sick annually from just one class of contaminants — waterborne pathogens — according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
John Brosious, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association, said his 2,600 members understand the DEP’s need to raise money for the program, but some are suffering sticker shock at proposed permit fee increase and a new annual fee. He hopes as the process continues that there is more shared equity in the new annual fees.
Under DEP’s proposal, annual fees could range from $250 to $40,000 per water supplier; when passed on to consumers, they would raise rates from 35 cents to $10 per person per year.
Brosious questioned the equity of making water system customers pay for DEP staff and programs that once were underwritten for by all taxpayers.
“I think it's fair to say that hiring 33 new inspectors is the bare minimum to meet federal requirements, he said. “The winnowing away of general fund money is forcing the agency to get money from elsewhere to do the same work.”
The state’s general fund once paid for most of the Safe Drinking Water Program. Now, a little more than half, $7.7 million, is funded that way. The DEP is counting on the $7.5 million in new fees charged to water operators to make up the budget shortfall.
“The question I see posed for government is: At what point does the general fund fill in the gap?” Brosious said. “Another question is: Do we still have a program that gives us a level of confidence that we are meeting our SDWA standards?”