Posted August 11th, 2014

The EPA in a Nutshell

by Hardly Waite

The EPA, aka USEPA, is an agency of the US Government that is charged with protecting human health and the nation’s environment by writing and enforcing regulations (which must be passed into law by Congress).

The EPA came into being on Dec. 3, 1970 as the result of a plan submitted to Congress by President Nixon. The agency now has about 18,000 full-time employees. The current administrator is Lisa Jackson. [Update: Gina McCarthy is the current administrator.  She took over in July of 2013.]

The EPA has regulatory authority in such diverse areas a air quality, oil pollution, drinking water, fuel economy, and radiation protection. In regard to water, it is involved with the enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.

The EPA is an often-maligned agency that is, unfortunately, subject to the political whims of changing administrations. Its authority was noticeably weakened during the years of the George W. Bush administration. In a 2008 survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists more than half of the nearly 1,600 EPA staff scientists who responded online to a detailed questionnaire reported they had experienced incidents of political interference in their work.

The EPA has the tough job of walking a tightrope between environmentalists and commercial interests. It is unpopular most of the time with both groups. It may not be a perfect system, but the nation would certainly be the worse without it.

The EPA sets the MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level) for selected chemical substances that can pollute water. We have often pointed out the MCL are “politically negotiated” rather than based on the best scientific evidence. The regulations can also be altered by judicial action. Here’s a cut from the EPA website that explains why there is currently no established limit for chloroform, a dangerous DBP and known cancer causer. It illustrates how the process works (and why you should not necessarily feel that you can rely on the government of monitor and protect against dangerous water contaminants). I hope you won’t mind that I snipped out some of the bureaucratic jargon to make it readable by humans.

Removal of the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal for Chloroform From the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations

In December, 1968 EPA Promulgated National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for disinfectants and disinfectant byproducts that included a MCLG (Maximum Contaminant Level Goal) of zero for chloroform. The MCLG was challenged by the Chlorine Chemistry Council and the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and the U. S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit found that EPA had not used the best available, peer-reviewed science to set the MCLG as required by the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Court issued an order vacating the zero MCLG.

The EPA has removed the MCLG for chloroform from its NPDWRs to ensure that the regulations conform to the Court’s order. (You can read the full ruling on the EPA’s website.)

Reprinted from the Pure Water Occasional for October, 2011.