New GAO Report Finds that No New Drinking Water Contaminants Have Been Regulated in Over a Decade, Despite Environmental Risks

Bush Administration Manipulated Science on Perchlorate
Jul 12, 2011

Today Reps. Henry A. Waxman and Edward J. Markey and Senator Barbara Boxer released a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finding that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not made a determination to regulate any new drinking water contaminants, with one very recent exception, since 1996 when the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended.  This comes at a time when there has been growing evidence about the threats to public health from unregulated drinking water contaminants.  

The report also shows that the Bush administration manipulated science to justify its 2008 decision not to regulate perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel. 

“GAO’s report raises serious questions about whether the Bush administration manipulated scientific findings and downplayed the risks of perchlorate exposure on sensitive subpopulations, including pregnant women and children,” said Rep. Waxman, Ranking Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  

“This GAO report reveals that during the recent Bush Administration, the EPA fell drastically short in fulfilling its mandate to monitor and assure safe drinking water for the public.  Poor management decisions and program delays resulted in a lack of data, transparency, clarity and consistency and pushed EPA into murky regulatory waters instead of focusing on keeping our drinking water free from potentially dangerous chemicals.  I am left questioning the credibility of many of EPA’s decisions regarding drinking water made during these years.  I hope that this report will serve as notice to Administrator Jackson that she has much work to do in order to address the problems the GAO has identified with EPA’s safe drinking water program,” said Rep. Markey, Ranking Member of the House Natural Resources Committee. 

“Everyone has a right to clean and safe drinking water, and it is essential to the health of children and families that our drinking water be free from harmful chemicals and pollutants.  GAO’s investigation addresses the stunning fact that EPA has not made a determination to regulate any new drinking water contaminants, with one recent exception, in well over a decade.  This failure has occurred despite mounting evidence of threats to public health from unregulated drinking water contaminants,” said Senator Boxer, Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.   

GAO also examined how EPA developed its 2008 preliminary determination that it did not need to regulate perchlorate.  GAO concluded that the process was “atypical” and “lacked transparency.”  Key findings of the report include: 

  • EPA’s perchlorate assessment was managed by a small, exclusive group of high level officials from inside the agency, who operated in conjunction with the Perchlorate Interagency Working Group (PIW).  The PIW was led by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and was comprised of agency officials from the Office of Management and Budget, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and NASA, among others.
  • EPA used unusual methodologies to develop estimates for exposure to perchlorate and the sources of perchlorate exposure.  Consequently, EPA likely underestimated the impact of perchlorate exposure on sensitive subpopulations, including pregnant women and children.
  • The White House Office of Management intervened to ensure that the final regulatory determination downplayed the risk to certain subpopulations.  Key EPA scientists told GAO that the agency “mischaracterized” scientific findings about the sensitivity of pregnant women and infants to perchlorate exposure to support the agreed-upon position that EPA did not need to regulate perchlorate. 

The report identified “systemic limitations” in how EPA identifies and assesses new contaminants for regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).  The 1996 SDWA amendments required EPA to determine, every five years, whether additional chemicals or contaminants warrant regulation.  GAO concluded that EPA lacks a clear process for identifying and prioritizing contaminants that pose the greatest public health concern, particularly for children and other sensitive subpopulations.  

The GAO concluded that EPA should create a formal process to consider infants and children’s unique vulnerabilities when creating drinking water safeguards and should increase the transparency of the Agency’s decision-making to help increase credibility and accountability in such decisions.  The report lays out a transparent and accountable framework that would enable EPA to use the best available science when creating drinking water protections.