EPA Inspector General Finds Bush Administration and EPA Misled Public About Improvements in National Drinking Water Quality

EPA Buries Report, Hoping No One Would Notice

WASHINGTON (March 12, 2004) - The Environmental Protection Agency inspector general's office issued a report early this week concluding that senior Bush administration EPA officials have repeatedly made misleading statements about purported improvements in U.S. drinking water quality (for a copy of the report, click here). EPA buried the IG report in an obscure area on its Web site, and it was not made public until NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) alerted a reporter yesterday (Click here to see "EPA Data on Water Purity Faulted" in today's Washington Post).

"This is yet another example of the Bush administration's efforts to mislead the public about EPA's sorry public health and environmental record," said Erik Olson, an NRDC senior attorney. "Instead of leveling with the public and admitting there are serious problems with our drinking water quality, EPA officials have been making rosy claims that they know are misleading."

The report, released by Kwai Chan, EPA's assistant inspector general, cited numerous claims by senior Bush administration officials in 2003 and 2004 that incorrectly "portrayed [EPA's] success at improving drinking water quality." For example, several of the documents falsely stated that 94 percent of the U.S. population served by community water systems drink water that meets EPA health standards (IG report, p. 3). The inspector general noted that these false claims were repeated in the media, including by a June 23, 2003, New York Times editorial that cited the purported improvement in tap water safety (IG report, p. 3). The IG report also found that internal EPA Government Performance and Results Act tracking reports have made similar false claims over the past four years.

Data from both EPA audits and the inspector general show that the claimed 94 percent compliance rate is a gross overstatement of the actual rate. Although no one has calculated the precise compliance rate, the inspector general found that the EPA is fully aware that these public claims substantially overstate actual drinking water compliance. Yet the false public statements were rarely accompanied by prominent or adequate caveats, the inspector general's report noted. In fact, EPA data audits show that about 77 percent of known monitoring and reporting violations, and 35 percent of known health standard violations, are not included in EPA's compliance database (IG report, p. 5). In addition, the inspector general's report pointed out -- and EPA documents acknowledge -- that many of these monitoring and reporting violations likely are "masking" health standard violations (IG report, p. 4). Like EPA's own audits, the inspector general's review of data for 761 water systems confirmed substantial underreporting of all types of violations (IG report, p.7).

"The EPA's regulatory system is broken," said Olson. "The lead crisis in Washington, D.C., is only a small part of the problem we have nationwide, and the EPA is asleep at the wheel."