Clean Water Act Diluted by Obsolete Data System

By J.R. Pegg

May 27, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) ability to monitor and control water pollution is being severely undermined by an outdated computer system, finds a new report from the agency's internal watchdog.

The inadequacies of the Permit Compliance System (PCS) have been known for several years, according to a report issued last week by the EPA's Office of Inspector General, but agency efforts to upgrade the system have repeatedly stalled for lack of funding and missed planning deadlines.

"The current system is incomplete, obsolete and difficult to use," the report said.

The agency's failure to upgrade the system, used to track and monitor permits issued under the Clean Water Act's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program, is endangering its "future viability."

The new PCS system was planned to be put in place this month, but the report finds the expected final implementation date is now September 30, 2006.

The system, last revised in 1982, is supposed to track issuance of permits, permit limits, self-monitoring and enforcement and inspection activities for more than 64,000 facilities regulated under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). It was designed to allow the federal and state governments to check a permit holder's monthly pollution discharge against the allowable amount.

The EPA and 18 states use the system to enforce the Clean Water Act, but its value is very much in doubt.

Unless the system is modified, the EPA "can not effectively manage its Clean Water NPDES program," the report says. "Having a modernized system is vital for the EPA to effectively manage NPDES permitting and enforcement under current requirements." waste

The outdated system can not track permits to concentrated animal feedlot organizations, which pump out millions of gallons of waste that can pollute the nation's waters. (Photo courtesy
The report scolds the EPA for not heeding the advice of a 1999 report that identified weaknesses in the PCS modernization effort that result in missing data and data quality problems.

Ignoring the first report was a sign of the agency's indifference to the PCS modernization effort, said Richard Caplan, clean water advocate with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

"It is as if oversight of the Clean Water Act is not a high priority for the federal government," Caplan said, "and it as if the agency, after being informed of their shortcomings, simply said 'who cares?'"

One result of the stalled modernization effort, according to the report, is that "compliance data from hundreds of thousands of smaller dischargers are not captured by the system."

Many large sources are also not captured by the system - since the 1982 revision, new categories of dischargers for storm water, pretreatment, and concentrated animal feeding operations have been added to the NPDES program.

The report criticizes the agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) for underestimating costs and for suggesting a scale back of the system's scope and functionality, a move that could lessen the usefulness of a system already found far from adequate.

From August 2002 to November 2002, the OECA's internal cost estimate for upgrading the PCS system rose 255 percent, according to the report, which estimated the cost of the modernization effort is some $12 million to $14 million.

The EPA says the funding shortfall is currently some 33 percent. Its cost cutting recommendations include eliminating some of the new system's functionality and not moving all the historical data from the current system to the new one.

Both suggestions are questioned by the report.

"Exercising the cost reduction options may result in a new system that fails to address the basic system requirements that OECA arrived at through consultation with stakeholders," the report says.

Officials with OECA agree the system needs fixing, but in a written response to a draft of the report said they were too busy to comment on the draft.

Phyllis Harris, principal deputy assistant administrator of OECA, wrote that the office was focused on its draft PCS Modernization Detail Design Document.

"If we took the time now to fully respond to your draft report, we would endanger our ability to deliver the Detail Design," Harris wrote.

The findings of the report add to growing evidence that the federal government is failing to enforce the Clean Water Act, environmentalists say, and that the Bush administration has little interest in reversing this trend.

"This system is supposed to track compliance with the permitting requirements that are the backbone of the Clean Water Act," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for the environmental law firm Earthjustice. "Without a functioning and effective system, the EPA clearly can not manage this important program." wetland

Clean Water Act protections for wetlands would be relaxed under a Bush administration proposal. (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
"This is critical because there is a high degree of noncompliance with the system and it may be higher than we thought," Mulhern said.

A report released last year by U.S. PIRG, based on information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, found that more than 81 percent of U.S. polluters exceeded their Clean Water Act permit limits at least once in the three year period.

What is frustrating, added Caplan, is that the permit tracking system could work if the administration would simply stop stalling and fund the modernization program.

"This is not a terribly difficult system to design," Caplan said. "Most middle school programmers can handle what we are talking about."

Although the inadequacies of the PCS system cover the three previous administrations, some critics say the stalling and lack of funding for the modernization effort are consistent with the current administration's lack of interest in enforcing pollution laws.

Environmentalists have sharply criticized the administration for cutting the enforcement budget at the EPA, as well as for its proposals to remove Clean Water Act protection from many of the nation's wetlands and to allow industrial wastes from mountaintop mining to be dumped into nearby waters.

The Bush administration has also put forth proposals to lessen the permit compliance requirements for oil and gas producers as well as for the nation's largest livestock and poultry operations.

The Bush administration, in particular EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, has repeatedly said they should be judged on whether the water is cleaner under their watch, Mulhern said.

"Without a functioning compliance system, the best answer is that the EPA does not know if the water is cleaner," she said. "And with its policies and rule changes, the Bush administration is going to make the water dirtier."