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 guidance.

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 quality.