Happy 40th Birthday Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)

By Ursula Knowles, Assistant Vice President, Information Development                    

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was first passed by the U.S. Congress in 1974. This year it is celebrating its 40th birthday! The SDWA authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national standards for drinking water so that natural and manmade contaminants do not find their way into public drinking water sources. The EPA implements and enforces these standards. They also allow each state the opportunity to enforce their own drinking water standards that are at least as stringent as the EPA’s. Most states have implemented their own programs under the SDWA.

Originally, the SDWA was used as a regulatory mechanism for treatment of potable drinking water. It was amended in 1996 and is now also used to regulate the original source of potable drinking water (ex. rivers, lakes, reservoirs, etc.), training of operators, water system improvements funding and public information about drinking water quality.

What specific entities does the SDWA regulate? It regulates water that may be used for drinking water and includes:

–  Water systems that supply drinking water
–  Ground water used as drinking water
–  Ground water

In contrast, the Clean Water Act (CWA) regulates water used for non-drinking purposes such as wastewater, surface water used for non-drinking purposes, and direct wastewater discharges from:

–  Wastewater treatment plants
–  Surface water used for industrial uses, recreation, wildlife habitat, and fishing
–  Wastewater discharges

The primary objectives of the SDWA are to ensure that public water supplies are safe and plentiful. If drinking water is not safe, this may lead to long-term health risks such as those associated with bacteria (ex. e.coli, etc.) or viruses (ex. hepatitis-B, etc.) and chronic health risks such as those associated with arsenic, trichloroethylene, or benzene (i.e. organ failure or cancer, etc.)

How can public drinking water supplies be contaminated? By improper disposal of chemicals, animal wastes, pesticides, industrial discharges, discharges from publicly owned treatment works, releases from septic systems, and polluted run-off from urban, agricultural or mining areas. In some instances, public drinking water can even be polluted by deposition from air pollution.

Drinking Water Incidents:                                                                            

1993 – In Milwaukee, WI, a water treatment facility did not treat water sufficiently and the result was that a protozoa was not filtered out of the water. This led to approximately 400,000 residents being sick with diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and dehydration, including the death of approximately 100 elderly and children.

2009 – The EPA issued a consent order to a large multinational company for allegedly affecting the drinking water of the communities surrounding the company’s facility in West Virginia. It stated that the facility had contaminated the drinking water with perfluorooctanoic acid (aka C-8) which is often used in the chemical industry as a surfactant (or something that helps two liquids or a liquid and a solid mix).

An oil exploration company pleaded guilty to the illegal disposal of hazardous waste in Alaska. They agreed to spend $22 million to settle criminal and civil charges. $6.5 million of those civil penalties were to resolve allegations that the company disposed of hazardous waste illegally and violated federal drinking water laws.

A county in New York was sued by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney and the EPA for failing to comply with federal SDWA regulations that require municipal drinking water suppliers to treat all unfiltered surface water for a microscopic parasite, Cryptosporidium. The suit sought to compel the county to comply with water treatment standards, ensure the delivery of safe drinking water to all of the households in that district, and also sought civil penalties against the county.

The proliferation of environmental regulations such as the SDWA has increased the environmental liability profile of entities, particularly those that are involved in activities that generate potable drinking water. Premises Pollution Liability insurance is available in the event that these organizations and businesses create a pollution condition at their locations. Contractors Pollution Liability coverage is available for contractors doing work at these sites. In some instances, carriers may be willing to provide product liability coverage for the potable drinking water (as a product). Please speak with your Beacon Hill representative about whether or not your client may be eligible for this coverage.