EPA is slammed on dirty water
Agency and states fail to track many pollution sources
By Traci Watson
WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency and the states fail to track
hundreds of thousands of sources of pollution contaminating the nation's rivers, lakes and
streams and do a poor job of policing many of the polluters they do know about, the
agency's own investigator reported Wednesday.
In all but six states, the EPA leaves it to state agencies to issue and enforce
water-pollution permits, which are required before any pollutants can be discharged into
bodies of water by industry or governments. In all states, the EPA provides money and
But the EPA's inspector general, in a scorching report, said the system isn't working.
Among the findings:
* The EPA's system for tracking pollution permits and compliance is
''incomplete, inaccurate and obsolete.'' The system hasn't had a major overhaul since
1982. It doesn't monitor hundreds of thousands of major pollution sources such as large
hog farms and sewers that overflow during storms. The EPA doesn't require the states to
track those sources, and the states don't want to do more data entry anyway.
* Regulators know that dirty runoff from farms, storms and roads is a major
source of water pollution. Yet state agencies and the EPA continue to focus on pollution
from large facilities, such as factories and sewage-treatment plants, that are more
visible and easier to police.
* When states do find a company that's violating clean-water laws, they often
fine the company too little and sometimes never collect. States frequently acted against a
polluter more than a year after noticing a violation. ''This may have contributed to a
large number of recurring violations.'' Some states reported that more than half the
facilities that broke pollution laws in 1999 did so again in 2000.
The report said the EPA's enforcement office is balking at change, even though ''the
current way of conducting business was marginally effective.''
''Environmental protection is primarily delivered by the states,'' said Nikki Tinsley,
EPA inspector general. ''We found many times that a program isn't working as designed.''
Nearly all the information for the report was collected during the Clinton
administration. Even so, it comes at an awkward time for EPA chief Christie Whitman, who
has proposed cutting the staff in the EPA's enforcement office and giving more enforcement
dollars to the states.
Environmental groups were quick to cite the new report as proof that Whitman's
recommendations would lead to more violations of pollution laws.
''Their approach is based on the idea that if you give the states the flexibility to
enforce environmental laws, they will,'' said Mike Casey of the Environmental Working
Group. ''What (this report is) saying is, they're not.''
The EPA is working to fix the problems, spokeswoman Tina Kreisher said. As for sending
more money to the states, ''We believe this is exactly what the states need'' to improve
enforcement, she said.
The report notes that some states have designed new programs that improve water