That sinking feeling.

The U.S. EPA claims it is successfully protecting the nation’s drinking-water supplies — but that claim seems to have sprung a leak.

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Earlier this month, the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General accused officials in the agency of consistently making bogus statements about improvements in the quality of America’s tap water. The charges are spelled out in a tellingly titled report: “EPA Claims to Meet Drinking Water Goals Despite Persistent Data Quality Shortcomings” [PDF].

“It’s just one more example of Bush officials using cooked-up numbers to try to prove what a great job they’re doing,” said Erik Olson, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But the reality is we’ve got serious problems in our drinking-water quality nationwide, and the EPA’s negligence could be putting millions of Americans at risk.”

Lead, arsenic, bacteria, pesticides, fecal matter, radioactive contaminants — oh my! — these are among the 90 pollutants that states are required to filter from drinking water to meet national standards (standards which, in the case of arsenic, the Bush administration tried to weaken, before public outcry forced it to back off).

But what good are standards when they’re not enforced — or when they’re monitored with sloppy and inadequate data?

Critics have asked this question of Bush’s EPA before, particularly with respect to air quality, when the agency’s enforcement actions against polluting power plants plummeted after Bush took office.

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Now, lapses in drinking-water protection may prompt a more emotional reaction from Americans who can’t brush their teeth or brew a pot of coffee without being affected.

The OIG report — delivered by Kwai Chan, the EPA’s assistant inspector general — identified a pattern of false statements about drinking-water quality released by the EPA and promulgated throughout the media. Between 1999 and 2002, the EPA publicly boasted that it met its goal of supplying safe tap water to 91 percent of U.S. residents — up from 79 percent in 1993. Then, in a June 2003 press release, the agency bumped up the purity estimate even higher: “In 2002, 94 percent of Americans were served by drinking water systems that meet our health-based standards — an increase of 15 percent in the last decade.”

So convincing were these claims that The New York Times published an editorial on the day the press release was issued using almost the same language: “Fully 94 percent of Americans are served by drinking water systems that meet federal health standards,” it said.

But the OIG report argues that “due to missing data on violations of drinking water standards, the agency did not in fact meet its drinking water performance goals.” The EPA’s conclusions were based on “flawed and incomplete” information, he said. According to the agency’s own data, 35 percent of known health standard violations nationwide have never even been entered into the EPA’s compliance database. On top of that, the agency’s regional inspections of drinking-water quality have plunged by more than half in the last three years, from 488 in 2000 to 228 in 2003.

“All these numbers we’re looking at are EPA’s own,” Olson told Muckraker. “It’s not like they’re debatable, or environmentalists are making them up.”

“There’s been a severe breakdown in the regulatory process,” he continued. “The gears have been stripped because EPA is not insisting and ensuring that the states do their job of accurately monitoring and reporting their water quality.” Olson added that though the OIG report does not quantify precisely how exaggerated the EPA’s estimates have been, water scientists within the agency have told him that in 2002, only about 81 percent of the jurisdictions monitored had safe drinking water — 13 percent lower than what the agency reported, which would mean that tens of millions of additional people are at risk from unsafe water.

Among those at highest risk are residents of the nation’s capital, which is one of the only jurisdictions in the country that reports water problems directly to the EPA, rather than to a state government. In late February, word got out about unusually high levels of lead in the city’s pipelines. D.C. health officials issued a warning to pregnant women and children under 6 whose homes and schools are serviced with lead pipes to stop drinking unfiltered tap water and get blood tests. Today The Washington Post reported that EPA and city officials had known about the high lead levels more than a year ago, but essentially ignored the problem.

News of extensive lead contamination in D.C.’s water was met with howls of protest from the environmental justice community: “EPA needs to show that it’s willing to take leadership in this situation,” Damu Smith, executive director of the D.C.-based National Black Environmental Justice Network, told Muckraker. “They’re the only ones with the power to stop it, and so far their track record shows a lot of bumbling and fumbling. It’s been pretty horrible.”

But as bad as the D.C. situation is, it will be easier to tackle than the challenge of adequately enforcing drinking-water standards on a national scale.

In a memo responding to the OIG report, Benjamin Grumbles, acting assistant administrator for water at the EPA, acknowledged “the very real need to improve data quality,” the presence of “incomplete” data, and the fact that “more work remains to be done” to improve the regulatory process — uncharacteristically contrite for a Bush administration official.