Protecting America's Drinking Water: Our Responsibilities Under the Safe Drinking Water Act

by James L. Agee
[EPA Journal - March 1975]

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 put into motion a new national program to reclaim and ensure the purity of the water we consume. Under the Act, each level of government, every local water system, and the individual consumer have well-defined roles and responsibilities. But both the opportunity and the challenge of implementing the Act begin with each of us in EPA.

The urgency of the task is underscored not only by stringent deadlines in the Act by recent questions about the health effects of chemicals in drinking water.

President Ford Signed the Safe Drinking Water Act December 16, 1974, in the wake of newspaper headlines, television documentaries, and magazine features warning that our old assumptions about the quality of our drinking water may no longer be valid. Potential cancer-causing chemicals have been found in trace quantities in New Orleans' and Pittsburgh's drinking water. In Boston, lead from water supply pipes has been found in water drawn from the tap. Viral or bacteriological contamination of drinking water has resulted in communication of disease, often in smaller, more rural communities where treatment works are outdated or modern techniques are not available.

In other cities and towns, foul odors and tastes make the water unpalatable. While the overall quality of this nation's drinking water is well above that supplied in any other country, professional waterworks operators, government, and citizens all agree that a much better job must be done in guarding our supplies.

Proposal this month

EPA was to propose interim primary drinking water standards by March 16. These standards, called the National Interim Primary Drinking Water Regulations, will specify maximum levels of drinking water contaminants and monitoring requirements for public water supply systems.

The contaminant limits are to be set at levels to protect public health to the extent feasible, using available techniques. A critically important part of establishing these regulations in final form will be the comments of all concerned parties--States, public utilities, the scientific and environmental communities, and the consumers. Final interim regulations are to be issued by June 6 after these comments are considered.

This first set of regulations is the foundation upon which State, local, and citizen participation begins. The Act places the primary responsibility for enforcement and supervision of public drinking water supply systems and sources of drinking water clearly upon the State.

As a safeguard, however, the Act requires that the States assuming primary enforcement responsibility demonstrate their competence in enforcing standards at least as stringent as the National Primary drinking water regulations, including procedures for monitoring and inspection, and adopt plans for the provision of safe drinking water should an emergency arise.

In no case, however, can the interim primary regulations go unenforced beyond December 1976, when they become law for every public water supply system regardless of whether a State has assumed enforcement responsibility. In cases where a State fails to assume this authority, or fails to exercise it adequately, the Administrator may, after notice to the State, seek mandatory compliance with these standards through the courts. In any case, the non-complying system must give public notice of its non-compliance to each of its users and to the news media.

Thus, the consumer becomes an enforcer and can exert pressure on the utility, the local government, and the State, demanding water that complies with the Federal and State regulations. The Safe Drinking Water Act has real "teeth" from the Federal level down to each of us as consumers.

Getting minimum standards into effect quickly is a major thrust of the Act, and the Congress has mandated that interim primary regulations be promulgated within six months. They recognized, however, that all of the research and analysis needed to set ultimate standards for drinking water could not be completed in 180 days.

Health study set

Over the next two years, the National Academy of Sciences, under contract to EPA, will conduct an in-depth study of the maximum contaminant levels which should be set to protect human health and will identify those contaminants whose levels cannot be determined but which may have adverse health effects.

Based upon this report and comments on it, EPA will issue recommended contaminant limits that are fully protective of human health, allowing an adequate margin of safety against known or anticipated adverse effects. At the same time, EPA will propose Revised National Primary Drinking Water Regulations that are as close to this recommended list as possible, taking into account technical and economic feasibility.

Full public knowledge of the level of protection offered by the revised regulations is guaranteed by these requirements. EPA must publicly issue the "ideal" drinking water standards--in effect, what the standards would be if treatment were always economically and technically possible--and it must issue enforceable standards that are as close to this ideal as can be achieved, taking cost and feasibility into account.

For both the interim and the revised regulations, the Act recognizes possible situations where compliance with the standards will be difficult for various reasons. In cases where a State has assumed primary enforcement responsibility, it can grant variances and exemptions from the regulations.

A variance could be granted because of inability to comply due to the character of the available water source, or because the raw water is of such good quality that a required treatment is unnecessary. Exemptions of up to seven years (nine years for regional systems) cold be granted for systems unable to comply due to compelling reasons, including economic factors.

If a variance or exemption is granted, compliance schedules must be issued and agreed to so that the system may ultimately comply. Full public notice and an opportunity for public hearing must be provided prior to the time that either type of exception takes effect.

In implementing the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA must go beyond the immediate question of the quality of the water at the tap. Prevention of source contamination is as important as the treatment or cure at the waterworks stage. Therefore, the Act sets up, for the first time, a comprehensive program to protect underground water resources (aquifers).

Over one-half of the nation's population is dependent on groundwater, and EPA estimates that 80 percent of the nation's 40,000 community water supply systems are totally dependent on this source. As surface water resources become more scarce, underground aquifers will become more important in supplying potable water.

The Act requires EPA and the States to establish programs to control the underground injection of brine, wastewater, gases, or any other fluids that might affect groundwater supplies. By June 16, EPA will propose regulations for State control programs to prohibit, starting in December 1977, any underground injection without a permit. Additional provision is made for situations where earlier protection is needed.

Any persons may petition EPA to designate an area in which no new underground injection well may be operated unless the Administrator has issued a permit.

The Act also provides EPA with authority to conduct broadscale research and individual studies on problems related to water supply, including health, technical, and economic problems. Nationwide monitoring of organic chemicals has already been started, following the discovery of some 66 such chemicals in New Orleans drinking water. EPA will submit preliminary results of this program to Congress in June.

In consultation with State officials, EPA selected 80 cities throughout the country whose water supplies will be sampled and analyzed for the presence of organic chemicals. The study is divided into two parts--in 10 of the cities, extensive and detailed analysis is underway; in the remaining 70 cities, EPA is testing for six specific compounds, some of which may be formed in the process of chlorination, a widely used technique for disinfecting water. The Agency also has asked that a special committee of the Science Advisory Board be set up to assess the health risk posed by these chemicals.

Putting it together

The reader might well ask, "How is EPA ever going to put all of this together within the times required?"

My first answer must be: This is an EPA-wide job. The Water Supply Program has major responsibility for implementing the Act, but many other offices will feel the impact of this mandate, in one way or another.

Already the Office of Planning and Evaluation is deep into the development of a basic strategy, both long- and short-term, for meeting the various requirements of the Act. The Office of Research and Development has had a long involvement with developing drinking water standards and guidelines, and this role must intensify as the interim standards are put into final form. This Office also will have a critical task in contracting for and shepherding the numerous essential studies and research projects which are essential to underpinning standards and regulations for drinking water and underground injection.

Interpreting the many provisions of the Act will be the responsibility of the General Counsel's Office, and the new standards will be based on knowledge and data from the Office of Toxic Substances.

As important as any other aspect will be the leadership of our Regional Offices in working with States to develop State programs and encourage assumption of enforcement responsibility, with local water supply systems to assure their understanding and cooperation, and with community groups and the public. As a former Regional Administrator, I have a deep personal commitment to assuring the fullest degree of regional partnership in this endeavor.

A major advantage and a continuing asset in our efforts are the State and local organizations which have had a long involvement in the problems of providing pure drinking water.

The aim of the Act is not to create new institutional systems but rather to reinforce and strengthen the programs that are already monitoring and enforcing water supply standards. During the first year of the Act's implementation, EPA is placing highest priority on communication with and assistance to the States to get a vigorous start in their assumption of enforcement responsibility.

Ten million sought

The President's budget proposes some $10 million for program grants to the States to guarantee that they have the resources needed to build up their programs. Three-quarters of this money is to be used by the States for developing and improving their capabilities for surveillance of public drinking water systems. The remaining $2.5 million will permit the establishment or strengthening of underground injection control programs.

EPA will maintain constant and close communication with States and local communities. A series of regional seminars is being held to brief State water supply officials on the requirements of the new Act and EPA's plans for developing regulations. Regional and State officials will work with the American Waterworks Association and communities to ensure effective, two-way communication at each level of responsibility.

The National Drinking Water Advisory Council, established by the Act, is an important channel for advising EPA on standards and regulations, and for addressing potential problems before they reach critical proportions. This 15-member group consists of representatives of the public, State and local water supply agencies, and private groups which have been active in the drinking water field.

As EPA pursues its safe drinking water mission, several basic principles should be guiding. First public health has the highest priority, over and above questions of esthetics, taste or odor. The adequacy of the State plans to protect health will be paramount when approval of the plan is considered.

Second, we will tackle the worst problems first after assessing hazard of the contaminant and the size of the affected population.

Third, the role of States, local governments, and citizens in advising the Agency in enforcement must be encouraged to the hilt.

Fourth, paperwork and red tape must be held to an absolute minimum. This may seem to be a restatement of the obvious, but it is a principle all too often violated by the Federal government. Paperwork cannot protect health--only action can.

James L. Agee was EPA Assistant Administrator for Water and Hazardous Materials at the time of publication.