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You are here: Home > Articles > Lax Oversight Raises Tap Water Risks

"Each day, millions of Americans turn on their taps and get water that exceeds legal limits for dangerous contaminants. Millions more get water that isn''t treated or tested properly, so there''s no telling if it''s clean."

Story by Peter Eisler, Barbara Hansen and Aaron Davis. USA TODAY.

WASHINGTON -- When it comes to the nation''s drinking water, there''s no punishment for pollution.

Tap Water Photo

Each day, millions of Americans turn on their taps and get water that exceeds legal limits for dangerous contaminants. Millions more get water that isn''t treated or tested properly, so there''s no telling if it''s clean. Many people get sick. A few of them die.

And most of the time, nobody does anything about it.

A USA TODAY investigation finds that the federal and state programs charged with enforcing the nation''s safe drinking water laws aren''t working, undermined by inadequate funding, inaccurate data, a soft regulatory approach and weak political support. Even the worst violations of drinking water laws have a 1 in 10 chance of drawing legal action by the government.

At the same time, powerful new pollutants imperil the water supply, from hard-to-kill bacteria to industrial and agricultural toxins. Yet water systems increasingly rely on aging pipelines, deficient treatment equipment and poorly trained operators to make the water safe.

USA TODAY did hundreds of interviews and undertook a computer analysis of millions of records from the nation''s 170,000 regulated water systems covering 1993-1997, from the largest serving 6.6 million people in New York City to tiny operations with just 25 customers, such as Hanks Trading Post in Flagstaff, AZ.

  • About 40,000 of the 170,000 water systems, serving about 58 million people, violated testing requirements and purity standards in 1997. About 9,500 water systems, serving about 25 million people had "significant" violations, which the Environmental Protection Agency defines as posing "the most serious threats to public health".
  • From 1994 through the start of 1997, only about 10% of all the significant violations drew enforcement action from government regulators. In fact, fewer fines and lawsuits are imposed under safe drinking water laws than any other major environmental statute.
  • More than a quarter of all significant violators have been in that category for at least three years.
Waste water in stream

The most common symptoms of waterborne illness, nausea and diarrhea, usually get blamed on stomach flu or bad food. So, while the government has for years listed contaminated drinking water as a top environmental health threat -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say people with immune deficiencies should consider boiling all tap water -- there has been little call for strong regulation.

"Right now, we''ve got a sleepy (regulatory) program nationwide, and we have a public that just assumes it will get clean water" says Steven Walden of Texas'' Water Utility Division, a relatively aggressive oversight operation.

"But we''ve got...a lot of new threats to worry about," Walden added. "And with drinking water competing for resources with everything from roads to libraries...there''s not much support for spending money to make it (the program) work".

Consequences are everywhere: For five years Boston has failed to meet requirements that it filter its water; in DeKalb IL, the water has exceeded federal limits for radium since they were imposed 22 years ago; in Ottawa County, Ohio, the Gem Beach Utility Company has refused since 1994 to meet treatment requirements for the water it draws directly from Lake Erie.

The last time a major waterborne illness hit a big city was 1993, when a parasite in Milwaukee''s water killed 111 people and made 403,000 sick. It remains the worst outbreak in modern U.S. history but there have been others since, from Las Vegas to Austin, Texas, to Alpine, WY.

Americans are beginning to notice: A recent USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll found 47% of respondents won''t drink water straight from the tap.