WASHINGTON -- Over 17,000 small town officials and local environmentalists are applauding the results of a recent report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Compliance (OECA) which found dramatic improvement in small community compliance with EPA drinking water rules after receiving technical assistance, according to the National Rural Water Association.
The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) pilot project looked at small and very small public water system compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in three states -- Colorado, Iowa, and Alaska. In these states, EPA utilized NON-REGULATORY assistance and training programs operated by small communities themselves as an alternative to regulatory enforcement -- such as fines and penalties -- to solve noncompliance.
The results are impressive. According to the EPA report's findings, after assistance was provided:
Mike Keegan, an analyst representing small communities, said, "This is very significant because it quantified environmental results and progress by documenting actual success rates for specific programs. It is difficult to say what is working until you can measure it -- this is a common problem with environmental programs. This type of analysis should be used as a model for other federal environmental programs."
In Colorado and Iowa, the study focused on the total coliform rule (TCR). The TCR rule was selected because of its importance in detecting the presence of potential microbiological contamination in drinking water. Historically, a large percentage of small and very small public water systems had problems complying with the monitoring and reporting requirements of the TCR due to it complexity. The type of assistance provided included: 1) site visits and phone calls to identify problems and remind operators to take samples; 2) assistance with sampling and analysis; and 3) training using Circuit Riders as mentors. Circuit Riders are in-the-field experts in drinking water system operation and maintenance employed by small communities through their state rural water associations. Many small towns can't afford full-time experts.
According to Keegan, "This study demonstrated how Circuit Riders can be a more effective alternative to enforcement because they are in the field every day teaching and educating. Having a town take responsibility for protecting its resources is more effective than constantly increasing regulations, says the National Rural Water Association, and it is the only way to ensure long-term compliance. Small communities want to provide the best quality water, but are faced with limited resources. Circuit Riders can fill this gap, providing technical resources and education on a peer level, and offer common sense solutions free of charge. It is a win-win situation when you get hard environmental progress with local support, for a fraction of the cost of enforcement and the data is there to prove it."
The EPA demonstration project and subsequent results emphasize the conclusions of a 1996 study by the National Rural Water Association which analyzed violations of federal rules and found that less than 2 percent of EPA violations actually reflected contamination problems. The rest are largely administrative and procedural violations caused by the complexity of EPA rules. Most all of these violations can be quickly remedied through rule education and on-site technical assistance, says the NRWA. Small town officials and environmentalists are using the OECA report to urge the EPA to dedicate more resources to technical assistance.
The OECA project summary is available on the Internet at www.ruralwater.org/oeca.htm and the NRWA compliance study summary is available at www.ruralwater.org/compliance.htm.
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