EPA Allows Drinking Water Reports Online — But Can Consumers Hack It?

January 16, 2013

EPA bowed to industry and some in Congress by ruling January 3, 2013, that local drinking water utilities did not have to notify their customers of contamination in writing, but could instead do so online.

That provision had been promoted in Congress — and had failed — during 2012. It had been sought by many in the the water utility industry, who claimed it would cut their costs. But consumer groups had opposed it. EPA essentially adopted the language that had failed to pass Congress by modifying its rules in a January 3, 2013, memo.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)  requires utilities annually to publish "Consumer Confidence Reports" (CCR), listing what contaminants are in a customer's finished drinking water and any violations of EPA rules that the utility may have made. In the past, these reports were required to be included in the envelope mailed to customers containing their water bill. Since water bills are mailed almost universally, putting the CCRs online would not save much postage.

Consumer watchdog groups like the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch) have complained that allowing utilities to put the CCRs online would probably reduce public access to the information — since some percentage of US households do not have the internet.

"The memo fails to set clear standards for electronic notification and delivery and makes it likely that segments of the public will have less access to these reports," the Center for Effective Government wrote in response to the EPA memo.