Amidst an unprecedented U.S. environmentalist movement in the 1970s, Congress enacted groundbreaking legislation to protect the public health and welfare: The Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA” or “Act”). Officially signed into law by President Ford in 1974, the SDWA was revolutionary at the time, providing a national “comprehensive regulatory framework” for overseeing the drinking water supply of the country at large. The Act delegates authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to set standards for drinking water safety and quality. Importantly, the SDWA expressly allows for states to monitor their own compliance with EPA standards, rather than the federal government. The Act requires a two-step process: (1) EPA establishes a maximum contaminant level goal (“MCLG”), creating a strict health-based goal, and then (2) as provided by Section 1412(b)(4)(B), EPA sets a maximum contaminant level (“MCL”), creating the enforceable standard. This is the standard states are required to meet for certain listed contaminants—a list requiring review and revision every six years.
Though the United States is a leading country in water safety, as much as half of some state populations still drink unregulated water from small systems that slip through the cracks of the regulatory protections enforced by the Act. This is because the SDWA regulates only public water sources, defined narrowly as that providing drinking water regularly to a minimum of 25 people or through 15 service connections for at least 60 days per year. Moreover, state enforcement of the SDWA has also been the subject of much criticism. In 2015, nearly 77 million Americans resided in areas with water systems in violation of the SDWA’s safety standards; however, because the statute requires self-regulation by the states and municipalities themselves, these violations were underreported, leaving many consumers unaware that their drinking water may be substandard. Maybe more concerning is that “nine out of ten violations of the SDWA are not subject to disciplinary or corrective action,” again, likely due to the Act assigning states the burden of regulating themselves.
A more modern concern about the SDWA is that it only regulates an outdated list of contaminants. For example, “PFAS,” broadly known as “forever chemicals,” are harmful human-made substances that are incredibly resilient and persist in the environment over long periods of time. PFAS can be found in a broad range of consumer products, from food to cookware, and even diapers. Thus, it is no surprise that the chemicals have been detected in U.S. air, water, soil, and the bloodstream of the many Americans. Research shows PFAS exposure can be toxic at relatively low concentrations and may result in adverse health effects, such as cancer or developmental delays to unborn children. A recent government study estimates more than half of our tap water across America could contain these toxins. Yet, the public drinking water containing PFAS meets legal standards unless and until EPA explicitly sets an MCL for the contaminant.
Fortunately, in 2021 EPA proposed a rule now in its final stage of approval. The rule includes the authorization to regulate certain PFAS in drinking water by establishing the MCLG and determining the MCL states will be required to enforce. EPA intends to implement the final rule in 2024. Still, for decades there has been effectively no government intervention nor industry regulation on how these toxic chemicals are used. Further, Americans will continue to drink tainted water until the new MCL is officially established–a process that has taken three years and counting. While the SDWA has created a consistent set of rules that still serve as a fundamental standard for ensuring public water safety, its effectiveness and practicality is tarnished by complexities. First, approximately 12% of the US population depends on federally unregulated private wells for drinking water because the scope of the Act is too slim. Second, per the Act, Americans are only protected by an underinclusive list of contaminants that EPA has established MCLs for, which shockingly only requires review once every six years. In sum, Congress should take action to rework the specifics of the SDWA so that it is more inclusive in terms of its scope of what water is regulated, how the federal government oversees state enforcement, as well updating which contaminants are subject to MCLs.