EPA has failed to fully tackle industrial polluters, says GAO
Written byANNIE SNIDER, E&E
U.S. EPA likely has not been cracking down on industrial water pollution as hard as it should have, due to a flawed process for reviewing effluent guidelines, a government watchdog agency said yesterday.
The two-phase process EPA uses to decide which guidelines to review means the majority of industries never get an adequate look, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.
Under the Clean Water Act, EPA is supposed to annually review guidelines for pollutants being discharged from industrial facilities such as factories and wastewater treatment plants in order to decide whether new information about the pollutants' dangers or about technologies available to decrease them warrants lower limits.
But most guidelines have not been updated since the 1980s or 1990s. Moreover, in recent years, EPA's focus has shifted from point sources -- such as the industrial facilities covered by these effluent guidelines -- to nonpoint sources such as agricultural and urban runoff, which are now responsible for most pollution making its way into waterways. Staff levels for the effluent guidelines program have been cut 40 percent, EPA officials told GAO.
Against this backdrop, GAO examined the process by which EPA reviews effluent guidelines and decides when to set new ones.
In the first phase of its review, EPA looks at the hazards posed by the pollutants discharged by each industrial category. For this, EPA looks at two sources of data: discharge monitoring reports and the Toxics Release Inventory. But GAO found that both these sources have critical limitations.
The monitoring reports, for instance, contain data only for the pollutants that the facilities' permits require them to monitor, meaning that other pollutants are excluded from EPA's calculations. Moreover, the reports don't include data from all permitted facilities. Specifically, EPA does not require states to report on direct discharges classified as minor. According to the agency, it has data from only about 37 percent of such minor facilities.
Experts interviewed by GAO said that while the Toxics Release Inventory is useful, it has limitations that can cause EPA to either overestimate or underestimate the relative toxicity of particular industrial categories.
The result is that the same industrial categories have risen to the top each year to move on to the second phase of review.
It isn't until that phase that EPA considers the technologies available to reduce discharges or make them less hazardous. But regulators consider treatment technologies only if an industrial category is contributing to 95 percent of the total reported hazard. If the industrial category is contributing to the 5 percent, EPA does not consider the technologies available to cut its discharges.
"Although this percentage is low, the categories involved constitute the majority of industrial categories with effluent guidelines," GAO found.
More than half the industrial categories with effluent guidelines did not advance beyond the first phase in any year from 2003 to 2010, GAO found, omitting them from further review of the availability of treatment technologies or production processes that could reduce the hazards of their discharges.
According to the report, EPA has begun looking at ways to improve the hazard data it uses in screening, but it is not tapping all potential sources of information about treatment technologies.