27 May 2003
Report Faults Efforts to Track Water Pollution
By Katherine Q. Seelye
May 26 — The computer system used by the Environmental Protection
Agency to track and control water pollution is obsolete, full of
faulty data and does not take into account thousands of significant
pollution sources, according to a new government report.
to modernize the program have been mismanaged for several years,
said the report, issued last week by the E.P.A.'s inspector general.
While the cost to fix the problem has been soaring, the amount of
money dedicated to the project has been shrinking. The new system
was supposed to come online this month, but because of its many
problems it will be at least three years before the agency and the
states can properly manage the enormous system of permits that is
the basic tool for enforcing the Clean Water Act.
report is the latest in a series of investigations over the years
into the law's enforcement, many of them severely critical of the
E.P.A. This time, the inspector general's office found that because
of continuing mismanagement, "the future viability" of
the system of permits "may be endangered."
P. Suarez, the agency's associate administrator for enforcement,
disagreed with the report's characterization of the system as endangered
but acknowledged that it faced serious financing problems.
project design and cost are getting more expensive," Mr. Suarez
said in a telephone interview. "In our most recent budget,
we asked for $5 million more to speed up the modernization effort,
but costs continue to increase."
permit system, known as the National Pollution Discharge Elimination
System, was created decades ago in an effort to make the nation's
waterways clean enough for fishing, swimming and other essential
purposes. Despite some progress, the states have consistently fallen
far short of that goal.
computer system is supposed to allow the federal and state governments
to check a facility's monthly discharge against its allowable amounts.
Critics say the computer flaws could allow the mining and oil industries
and developers to discharge vast quantities of pollutants into waterways
permits are supposed to control discharge from more than 64,000
facilities, a number that has been increasing as new categories
of runoff, like pollution from overflowing sewers and from large
livestock operations, have been brought under the Clean Water Act.
thousands of permits expire every year without being renewed, the
backlog of permits to be issued has been reduced slowly, and tens
of thousands of pollution sources have not been listed in the agency's
database, rendering it largely useless.
these new areas are not included in the modernized system,"
the report warned, "information for hundreds of thousands of
permittees will not be included."
flaws in the system and the delays in fixing it are jeopardizing
one of the E.P.A.'s main new water pollution control strategies,
which calls for granting new permits only after considering how
much pollution is already flowing into a watershed. Without comprehensive
data, that approach is next to impossible.
the project's rollout or reducing its functionality will hamper
E.P.A.'s ability to achieve its goal of managing pollution sources
on a watershed basis," the new report said. "The growth,
variety and complexity of the regulated community has greatly outstripped
the system's capabilities."
of the agency said the faulty system undermined efforts to enforce
the Clean Water Act.
deliberate neglect of this project is a perfect example of the Bush
administration's effort to dismantle the Clean Water Act with as
little public awareness as possible," said Daniel Rosenberg,
a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
than investing in modernizing the system for tracking compliance
and enforcing the law," Mr. Rosenberg said, "they are
wasting money and resources on rewriting the rules to eliminate
protections for tens of thousands of streams and wetlands, weakening
essential programs and promoting various initiatives that range
from useless to harmful."
states use the system as their primary tool for enforcing the federal
law, a responsibility that is often handled by state governments.
system is so old, said Mr. Suarez of the E.P.A., that it requires
the manual input of data from the reporting facilities. The goal
is to have that data recorded automatically. Nonetheless, he said,
"we have a very high level of confidence in the integrity of
the data." The problem, he said, was that spending money on
the manual input meant there was no money to update the system.
got to fix the system," he said. "We can't continue operating
the way it is."
cost of modernizing the system is relatively small for a federal
project — less than $14 million as of two years ago, according
to the report. But the report said that the E.P.A. Office of Enforcement
and Compliance Assurance in its first analysis had "greatly
understated the costs to finish the project." An analysis by
the office just one month later put the cost 171 percent higher.
A third analysis completed two months after that was 255 percent
higher than the original.
report said that the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance
had only two-thirds of the money needed to complete the project,
which is scheduled for September 2006 if the financing sought in
next year's fiscal budget is approved.
a written statement to the inspector general, officials from the
Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance said they were rushing
to complete their draft design for the new system and would address
the report more fully next month.
have been other delays in enforcing the permit mechanisms since
President Bush took office.
part of a broad review of regulations, the incoming administration
suspended a proposal by the Clinton administration that would have
increased controls on pollution from overflowing sewers. The review
is still under way.
the administration has proposed to defer for two years requirements
for permits under the Clean Water Act for certain activities of
oil and gas producers, similar to those imposed on other developers
to prevent contaminated runoff. The agency says that tens of thousands
of sites might have been affected.
H. Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit, independent
research institute in Oakland, Calif., that specializes in water,
said the current system "permits polluters to abuse our clean
water laws, apparently without penalty."
problem is more than just a failure to collect and manage information
on polluters, or to enforce compliance with pollution permits that
have been issued," Dr. Gleick said. "It is a failure of
the administration to stop the thousands of polluters without permits."