1 In 7 Southwestern Pennsylvanians Served By Water Systems With EPA Violations

May 9, 2017

Thirty separate water systems in Southwestern Pennsylvania violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015, according to a new report from the National Resources Defense Council.

The analysis comes less than six months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection noting its staffing levels were inadequate to effectively monitor the safety of drinking water in the state.

Based on 2012 numbers, each DEP inspector had more than twice the number of public water systems to oversee than is recommended by the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators.

“This kind of excessive workload is not sustainable and program performance will continue to suffer,” wrote Jon Capacasa, director of the EPA’s Water Protection Division.

In the letter, the EPA warns that the primary responsibility for enforcing safe drinking water rules could be taken away from the state if under-staffing continues.

“That can often result in a lot of these violations if there’s nobody minding the store, basically at the state level. Or they’re on a skeleton staff and not making sure that there are enough inspections and making sure that someone’s checking in with the systems when they violate,” said Erik Olson, health program director at the NRDC.

The NRDC report found about 1 in 4 Americans was served by a public water system that had violations in 2015, compared to 1 in 7 people locally.

The 11-county southwestern Pennsylvania region includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

The Tri-County Joint Municipal Authority, which serves 10,100 customers in southeastern Washington County, was the biggest regional offender with 16 violations, all related to disinfectants and disinfection byproducts.

Disinfectants such as chlorine kill dangerous pathogens and viruses, but can also react with naturally-occurring substances in the water to form harmful byproducts including trihalomethane, chlorite and bromate.

The Confluence Borough Municipal Authority came in second. The authority, which services 900 customers in southwestern Somerset county, had 11 violations for mistreatment of surface waterground water and filter backwash. These rules are designed to keep pathogens such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium out of drinking water.

More than half the violations were found at water authorities that serve less than 5,000 people living in rural areas. 

Mae Wu, senior attorney with the NRDC’s health and environment program, said that mirrors the nationwide trend.

“We had found that the smallest drinking water systems, and those are often found in rural areas in sparsely populated parts of the country, they bear the brunt of the violations,” Wu said.

Wu said she's worried that President Trump’s budget proposal would eliminate the Department of Agriculture’s Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program, which provides funding for eligible rural water and sewage treatment systems with 10,000 or fewer customers.

Trump’s budget blueprint called the program “duplicative” and argued its elimination would save $498 million annually.

“Rural communities can be served by private sector financing or other federal investments in rural water infrastructure, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s State Revolving Funds,” according to Trump's plan.

Wu said the eligibility requirements of that EPA program tend to favor large and medium water systems.

Trump’s budget proposal also decreases funding for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance by about 24 percent, while “concentrating EPA’s enforcement of environmental protection violations on programs that are not delegated to States.”

Wu said that would translate to an equivalent cut in the capacity of the EPA to enforce compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Researchers collected the data before it was revealed that some households served by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority had elevated levels of lead in drinking water

Photo by nicdalic/Flickr.