Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sen. Hearing On Unregulated Drinking Water Contaminants Program

Jul 12: The Senate Environment and Pubic Works (EPW) Committee, Chaired by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) , with Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) held a hearing entitled, "Oversight Hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency's Implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act's Unregulated Drinking Water Contaminants Program." Witnesses testifying at the hearing included the: Government Accountability Office; U.S. EPA; American Public Health Association; West Valley Water District; Joseph Cotruvo & Associates, LLC; George Washington University Cancer Institute; and Department of Public Health and Community Medicine Tufts University.
    Chairman Boxer indicated in an opening statement, "In order to ensure that enough is being done to protect our nation from emerging contaminants, I, along with Representatives Waxman and Markey, asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the unregulated contaminant program. This report is being released today. . . the GAO report shows the development of new standards for unregulated drinking water contaminants, such as perchlorate, were derailed in a process that failed to use the best available science and was driven by factors other than the protection of public health. Scientific information has shown that certain emerging contaminants in our drinking water, such as perchlorate and chromium-6, could be harmful to children and families across the nation. . . EPA needs to have a process that vigorously addresses these contaminants to help ensure the safety of the nation's drinking water. . ."
    Ranking Member Inhofe said, "At the cornerstone of the Safe Drinking Water Act is the idea that we should be controlling those substances that pose risks to public health. Unfortunately, the system that EPA uses to determine health risks, the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), has a decade's long issues in crafting risk assessments. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has recently pointed out that IRIS assessments have suffered from a lack of transparency, inconsistency, and problems with evaluating studies and the weight of evidence. . . As analytical techniques continue to improve, we are able to detect constituents at increasingly lower levels. This ever increasing ability to detect will allow the numbers of chemicals in our water to increase infinitely. However, it is important that we do not associate any detection with risk. In nearly every case, the extremely low levels we are detecting are well below the dosage that would affect public health. To be perfectly clear, exposure does not mean there is risk. . ."
    GAO submitted 26-pages of testimony and a 146-page report entitled, Safe Drinking Water Act: EPA Should Improve Implementation of Requirements on Whether to Regulate Additional Contaminants (GAO-11-254, May 27, 2011). GAO was asked to: (1) evaluate the extent to which EPA's implementation of the 1996 amendments has helped assure the public of safe drinking water; and, (2) review the process and scientific analyses used to develop the 2008 preliminary regulatory determination on perchlorate. GAO analyzed relevant statutory provisions and regulatory determination documents and interviewed EPA officials.
    GAO found that, "Systemic limitations in EPA's implementation of requirements for determining whether additional drinking water contaminants warrant regulation have impeded the agency's progress in assuring the public of safe drinking water. EPA's selection of contaminants for regulatory determination in 2003 and 2008 was driven by data availability -- not consideration of public health concern. EPA does not have criteria for identifying contaminants of greatest public health concern and based most of its final determinations to not regulate 20 contaminants on the rationale of little or no occurrence of the contaminants in public water systems. Moreover, EPA's testing program for unregulated contaminants--which can provide key data to inform regulatory determinations--has fallen short in both the number of contaminants tested and the utility of the data provided because of management decisions and program delays. . ."
    GAO's 17 recommendations include that the EPA Administrator require: (1) development of criteria to identify contaminants that pose the greatest health risk; (2) improvements in its unregulated contaminants testing program; and, (3) development of policies or guidance to interpret the broad statutory criteria. According to GAO, EPA agreed with 2 recommendations but took the position that developing guidance and taking the other recommended actions are not needed. GAO believes EPA needs to adopt all of the recommendations to better assure the public of safe drinking water.
    EPA testified that, "Strong science and the law are the foundation of our decision-making at EPA. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), EPA identifies priority contaminants that are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems and then evaluates whether new drinking water standards are warranted for these contaminants. . . GAO's report expresses concern that EPA's past decisions have been driven not by considering the greatest health concern but by considering available data. EPA agrees that we can improve our process to better focus on contaminants that may be of public health concern. The improved approach in the most recent CCL [Contaminant Candidate List] was a substantial step forward in achieving this by using a rigorous scientific process to better ensure that the contaminants on the list are the ones that should be of highest priority for public health protection. . .
    "In response to the GAO recommendations, EPA will also consult with an independent panel of scientists on the regulatory determinations, specifically on the evaluation of the contaminants against the first and second criteria defined by SDWA, the use of best available science to develop the determination, and whether the determination focuses on the greatest public health risk. We will post the regulatory determination process publicly and review the process every five years as we conduct the regulatory determination cycle. . ."
    Access the hearing website with links to all testimony, a webcast and Chairman Boxer's statement (click here). Access the statement from Sen. Inhofe (click here). Access the complete GAO report (click here). [*Drink]