A dead raccoon turned up in Magna’s drinking water system earlier this year after a screen had been removed from a water tank overflow drainpipe, prompting a boil-water order for the northwestern part of Salt Lake County.
While the errant critter was discovered and removed before its festering carcass could foul the Utah town’s water supply, the incident illustrates the need for stronger enforcement of rules set for protecting human health.
That’s a key finding in one of two legislative audits released Tuesday, calling on the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and its five divisions to improve data tracking and increase enforcement, particularly with the Division of Drinking Water, or DDW.
In one instance, it allowed a country club to operate a deficient well for nearly 24 years before its inadequate casing was fixed, according to the audit.
In the far-ranging reports, auditors also documented problems with the divisions of Air Quality, Water Quality, and Waste Management and Radiation Control, and with how aboveground storage tanks at certain landfills are regulated.
But the biggest concerns were associated with drinking water, where Utah regulators have never issued a penalty under their enforcement authority. Auditors acknowledged the DDW, charged with ensuring the state’s drinking water systems are safe, has improved enforcement since 2005, back when it took on average 1,020 days for out-of-compliance providers to comply with state standards. At that time, 115 “significant” deficiencies had gone unresolved for more than five years.
But the 74 days it now takes is still too long, auditors concluded, because uncorrected violations could lead to contaminated drinking water and public health problems, audit supervisor David Gibson told the Legislative Audit Subcommittee on Tuesday.
“Despite the recent increase in enforcement, some systems continue to be deficient. Those systems could be incentivized to comply sooner if DDW used its penalty authority,” auditors wrote in a report submitted to the lawmakers. They also suggested including a measure tracking the time to comply in each case.
DEQ director Scott Baird said he welcomed the auditors’ insights and agreed to implement the numerous recommendations and reforms they proposed.
“We are confident what we are doing is working. Is it enough? No, we need to continue improving,” Baird said. “If you look at the outcomes, you can see improvements across the state.”
In response to the drinking water compliance issues, the new division director, Marie Owens, came in with a charge to step up enforcement, according to Baird. The drinking water catastrophes in Flint, Mich., and Milwaukee drove home the need for providers to follow the rules, he said.
“There was a history of trying to help our regulated community to get in compliance. Perhaps we had gotten a little relaxed in trying to speed up that rate of compliance,” Baird said. “It takes time to make a shift of 20 years with one paradigm to another one. We are making great progress. We don’t want to stop drinking water. We don’t want to limit what they are producing.”
Legislative auditors had drawn similar conclusions last year about the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, which is not part of DEQ, but still plays an important role protecting the environment. That state agency’s historic failure to pursue fines from oil and gas operators created a culture of noncompliance in that industry, putting the environment and public safety at risk, auditors said.
DOGM has since implemented reforms to better hold scofflaw operators accountable. Meanwhile, one of the new audits questioned the practice of dumping drill cuttings and other wastes associated with energy development in landfills permitted only for nonhazardous waste. Auditors suggested the DEQ create a new classification of landfill to receive such waste.
Despite the need to tighten enforcement, Republican lawmakers are now pushing “emergency” legislation that would bar new environmental regulations in a bid to protect oil and gas operators, whose industry has taken a beating after the coronavirus epidemic drove down demand for transportation fuels.
Sen. Ron Winterton, R-Roosevelt, is sponsoring SB6004, which is on deck for Thursday’s special session. It would bar the Utah Air Quality and Water Quality boards from creating new or amending existing rules until June 2021. The goal would be to create “regulatory certainty” for oil and gas producers, but if passed the bill could undermine the Division of Air Quality’s mission.
One of the new audits insist the division do more to improve air quality in the Uinta Basin, which experiences severe spikes in wintertime ozone pollution, largely due to emissions of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, associated with energy production.
As long as a well produces fewer than 8,000 barrels of oil a year, it is not required to be equipped with control devices that can cut their VOC emissions by 95%, auditor Hillary Galvin told lawmakers. Auditors estimated that of the basin’s 3,600 wells under DAQ jurisdiction, 2,426 do nothing to control emissions.
The state is developing a plan for bringing the basin into compliance with federal ozone standards. But SB6004 could thwart rule-making needed to reduce the emissions that contribute to ozone formation.
DEQ has taken over air quality compliance responsibilities from the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, but it has not met a goal of inspecting every well at least every five years. In a sign of improvement, the air quality division inspected 262 last year, but even at that rate it would take 13 years to visit each of the basin’s 3,600 operating wells once.
All but one of the division’s inspectors travel from Salt Lake City, meaning more of their time is spent behind the wheel getting to and from the basin.
DOGM also inspects wells, but its inspectors don’t use the same high-end optical gas imaging cameras their DAQ counterparts use for detecting VOC emissions. Auditors urged better coordination between the two agencies to improve inspection efficiency.
Auditors also found deficiencies with the air quality division’s program for replacing wood stoves and fireplaces with cleaner-burning appliances. They recommended the division develop ways to more accurately gauge the program’s effectiveness and conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the reductions in wood smoke are worth the cost of the program.
Like the drinking water division, according to the new audits, the Division of Waste Management’s landfill program has shown a lax attitude toward enforcement of state standards. The program has not levied a fine in the past six years. Nor has it consistently conducted inspections on the required one-year and three-year cycles or tracked how long noncompliant landfills take to get into compliance.
The waste division’s four programs that administer federal standards, by contrast, are doing an adequate job ensuring compliance for the handling of radioactive and other hazardous wastes.
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 6:17 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 18, to add comments from DEQ Director Scott Baird at a legislative audit subcommittee hearing.