Mounting Attention to Chemical Management Puts EPA in the Spotlight

In another sign that the conversation around hazardous chemicals is growing, on Monday the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a new watchdog report that found the EPA is not taking adequate action to protect water resources from unmonitored hazardous chemicals. Specifically, the report examined controls around chemical discharges from sewage treatment plants.

The 26-page OIG report contained findings from investigations conducted between March 2013 and June 2014 involving analyses of hazardous chemical discharges into sewage treatment plants, reviews of EPA programs and documents, and interviews with executives and staff across the EPA and related agencies.

Based upon these investigations, the OIG report concluded that “controls put in place by the EPA to regulate and control hazardous chemical discharges from sewage treatment plants to water resources have limited effectiveness” and that current EPA regulations “are not effective in controlling the discharge of hundreds of hazardous chemicals to surface waters such as lakes and streams.”  The report went on to note that there are many hazardous industrial chemicals for which virtually no sewage treatment plants currently monitor. The report also said that while effluent toxicity tests for these chemicals have been developed, they are usually not required (and the results are not currently tracked). Based on this, the OIG report determined that “the EPA may not be aware of chemical discharge or toxicity exceedances” currently present in water resources.

The OIG proposed that the EPA correct this situation by expanding the list of chemicals it regulates in sewage systems, and by tracking the results of toxicity tests and any pursuant violations.

The EPA responded that it would work to implement most of the recommended corrective actions in the report within one year.

The EPA has turned its attention to this issue before. In 1986, the EPA released a report to the U.S. Congress entitled Report to Congress on the Discharge of Hazardous Wastes to Publicly Owned Treatment Works. The report suggested that additional research was needed to fill information gaps on the effects of hazardous waste on sewage, and suggested that the EPA could improve controls on hazardous waste discharges to sewage treatment plants. Based on Report to Congress, the EPA developed new regulations that resulted in restrictions on some chemical discharges into sewage treatment plants.

However, while the OIG report issued Monday made note of the 1986 document—and corresponding regulations—it also suggested that the EPA has been lax in updating requirements related to hazardous chemical discharges. For example, Monday’s report repeatedly cited the fact that the EPA’s list of 126 priority pollutants has not been updated since 1981, and that hundreds of chemicals classified as hazardous by the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act are still not listed as Clean Water Act priority pollutants—and therefore not currently monitored by sewage treatment plants.

For more information on Monday’s OIG report, you can visit the EPA website or read the full report online here.