The state Department of Health (DOH) should continue to improve how it informs the public of potential hazards in public drinking water systems and ensure proper actions are being taken to protect residents, according to an audit released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
"Safe drinking water is a basic need and, as we learned in the wake of widespread problems in Hoosick Falls and Newburgh, the state must step up its efforts to protect New Yorkers from harmful contaminants," DiNapoli said. "Our auditors found the state should redouble its efforts to monitor emerging contaminants in New York's drinking water, notify the public when there are problems and ensure that when contamination of water occurs it is addressed."
New York has 9,155 public water systems, according to DOH data. DOH reports that nearly 95 percent of all New Yorkers receive their drinking water from these systems.
DOH district offices and local health departments (Offices) conduct the day-to-day oversight of public water systems, which includes reviewing and approving water treatment and infrastructure designs, receiving and evaluating the results of routine water sampling, verifying the correction of violations and taking appropriate enforcement action.
Although DOH has generally established adequate controls to ensure the water systems conduct required water testing and have certified system operators, DiNapoli's auditors discovered that the sites they visited, which included the Oneonta, Glens Falls and Watertown district offices and the Erie County and Orange County local health departments, could improve their monitoring to better verify that system operators comply with requirements.
When water safety violations occurred, the Offices visited did not always take appropriate or timely action to hold water systems accountable for required follow-up, such as notifying the public. Of the 126 water safety violations that auditors sampled, the Offices lacked evidence that system operators notified the public for 58 violations (46 percent), including six with the potential to result in acute or serious adverse health effects with short-term exposure, for which notification is required within 24 hours. For example, the Watertown district office lacked evidence that the public was notified for 92 percent of its tested violations and the Erie County health department lacked evidence for 67 percent of its tested violations.
For the 68 sampled violations where public notifications were issued or were pending release, 14 (21 percent) were issued late, including two that required notice within 24 hours but were seven and 10 days late; and 12 violations that required notice within 30 days. Three of these violations ranged from 154 to 397 days late.
Of the 126 drinking water safety violations tested, 78 were closed and 48 remained open. There was documentation supporting that 69 of the 78 closed violations had been brought back into compliance, as required. For the remaining nine closed violations, auditors could not find documentation that they had returned to compliance. In addition, the 48 open violations had been active for periods that range from four days to more than six years.
The audit also showed that, until recently, New York did not have a formal program to monitor emerging contaminants. With the passage of the Emerging Contaminant Monitoring Act in 2017, DOH is now required to develop a list of emerging contaminants for which all public water systems, regardless of size, are required to test at least once every three years.
During the years 2013-2015, 196 of the state's 2,859 community water systems were required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to collect data about emerging contaminants that are unregulated. A minimum reporting level is established for each substance which is the smallest concentration that can be reliably measured. It may be lower than health advisory levels.
When this data was review by DiNapoli's auditors, several areas of concern were revealed. This included:
- 175 of the 196 water systems sampled – nearly 90 percent, encompassing 45 counties – detected contaminants in concentrations equaling or exceeding the minimum reporting level in at least one sample;
- 10,305 of the 48,451 samples (21 percent) exceeded the minimum reporting level for 20 contaminants; and
- Nine counties – Albany, Saratoga, Erie, Nassau, Suffolk, Onondaga, Orange, Rockland, and Westchester – had a significant number of unregulated contaminant occurrences that were at or above the minimum reporting level.
DOH has indicated that, in conjunction with the newly formed Drinking Water Quality Council, it will continue to review data about emerging contaminants and, as appropriate, take related action to protect public health.
As a result of the audit, DiNapoli recommended DOH:
- Prioritize actions to regulate emerging contaminants with known adverse health effects; and
- Ensure that safe drinking water is distributed to the public through a robust monitoring program that, at a minimum:
- Requires that Offices verify that public water systems have issued timely public notifications of violations to consumers;
- Ensures prompt reporting of violation information, as well as information about returning to compliance, in the federal Safe Drinking Water Information System; and
- Confirms actions are taken to address old active violations.
The response from DOH officials is included in the final report, which can be found online at: https://www.osc.state.ny.us/audits/allaudits/093018/17s45.htm
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