Nearly 11,000 U.S. facilities discharged pollutants into local waters beyond the levels allowed under the law, the Environmental Protection Agency told a nonpartisan congressional watchdog.
In a report released Monday, the Government Accountability Office said that the EPA found that in 2018, close to 11,000 facilities with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits illegally dumped large amounts of pollutants into local waters. As of fiscal 2020, some 335,000 facilities have active NPDES permits, 60,000 of which are required to monitor pollutant discharge.
An imbalance in the amount of plastic floating on the surface of the ocean and the volume leaking into the ocean by rivers led scientists to believe an unidentified sink was removing the river-sourced plastics quickly from the ocean surface.
However, several miscalculations mean the mass fluxes or flows have been overestimated by two to three orders of magnitude. This increased the average residence time of microplastics at the ocean surface from a matter of days to several years and implies they exist for longer periods and take more time to degrade than previously thought, negating the need for a missing sink.
Since 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has modified one of its three national initiatives emphasizing compliance with the Clean Water Act and has discontinued two others (see fig.). The goal of the modified initiative is to reduce significant noncompliance with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits by half by the end of fiscal year 2022. Such permits set limits on discharges of wastewater from point sources, such as a pipe from an industrial facility. This goal supports EPA’s strategic objective to increase compliance with environmental laws in its strategic plan for fiscal years 2018-2022. EPA discontinued its initiatives focused on animal waste pollution and raw sewage and stormwater runoff, returning these areas to the core enforcement program in 2018 and 2019, respectively. As a result, these areas no longer receive the heightened attention and focused resources of the national initiatives, but the agency still pursues enforcement actions when needed.
EPA posts data that states report on their NPDES compliance and enforcement activities to its website, but the data are not reliable for identifying changes in the number of activities states conducted since 2015. EPA’s most recent assessment of states’ data showed that two of 17 states met expectations for the accuracy and completeness of the data recorded in the agency’s national database. EPA is working with states to improve their data, and it includes on its website disclosures by some states about problems and limitations with their data. However, the agency has not ensured that all states’ disclosures are consolidated, complete, and updated. Until it does so, potential users of the data may not fully understand the data or the data’s limitations.
EPA developed a measure to track progress toward its goal for reducing the rate of significant noncompliance by NPDES facilities with individual permits by the end of fiscal year 2022. While the measure tracks changes in the number of facilities in significant noncompliance, the results of the measure are unclear because data EPA needs to track compliance are incomplete and contain inaccuracies. According to EPA, about 70 percent of NDPES facilities have sufficiently complete data in the national database for EPA to track compliance. EPA is working with states to improve data quality, but it does not have a plan to assess the overall accuracy of the data. Until it does so, EPA cannot be certain what its measure is showing and if EPA is making progress toward its goal.
Why GAO Did This Study
EPA partners with states to oversee compliance with and enforcement of the Clean Water Act. In fiscal year 2020, there were roughly 335,000 facilities with active NPDES permits, which are used to regulate wastewater discharges under the act. In 2015, EPA began requiring states and facilities to electronically report data on their NPDES activities. EPA estimated that in 2018, nearly 11,000 facilities significantly exceeded their permit limits and illegally discharged pollutants into nearby waters, which may pose serious threats to human health and the environment.
GAO was asked to review EPA’s enforcement of the Clean Water Act. This report examines (1) changes since 2015 in EPA’s national initiatives for ensuring compliance with the act, (2) changes in NPDES compliance and enforcement activities since 2015, and (3) the extent to which EPA is measuring progress toward compliance with the NPDES program. GAO reviewed and analyzed EPA documents and data on NPDES compliance and enforcement activities. GAO also interviewed officials from eight states, selected in part by EPA region, to learn about their NPDES compliance and enforcement activities and data reporting.
An estimated eight million tons of plastic trash enters the ocean each year, and most of it is battered by sun and waves into microplastics—tiny flecks that can ride currents hundreds or thousands of miles from their point of entry. The bits can harm sea life and marine ecosystems, and they’re extremely difficult to track and clean up.
Now, University of Michigan researchers have developed a new way to spot ocean microplastics across the globe and track them over time, providing a day-by-day timeline of where they enter the water, how they move and where they tend to collect. The approach relies on the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) and can give a global view or zoom in on small areas for a high-resolution picture of microplastic releases from a single location.
Nitrate is one of the most common water contaminants worldwide and poses significant risk for ecological and human health. These risks are especially prevalent in rural areas where land cover is predominantly conventional row-crop agriculture (e.g., corn and soybeans) and fertilizer application rates are high. Nitrate pollution poses a serious problem for water quality in Illinois, yet not enough is known about the prevalence and extent of rural well contamination. This paper examines the problem of nitrate pollution in these wells and presents solutions for better understanding and addressing the issue.
A team of Korean researchers have made a membrane that can turn saltwater into freshwater in minutes. The membrane rejected 99.99% of salt over the course of one month of use, providing a promising glimpse of a new tool for mitigating the drinking water crisis.