Audit: New Yorkers notified of drinking water issues late, or not at all
Sep 24, 2018
ALBANY — An audit of the state Health Department's drinking water monitoring program found that district and local offices did not always notify the public of drinking water violations in a timely or appropriate fashion.
The audit was conducted by the state Comptroller's Office, and covered a more-than four-year period from January 2014 through March 2018.
During this period, 768 water safety violations were recorded in 47 counties around the state. Auditors reviewed 126 of them from 10 counties with the most violations, including Saratoga, Washington and Warren, and found no evidence for at least 58 of them that the public had ever been notified.
"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," Comptroller Thomas 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, from which nearly 95 percent of residents get their drinking water.
Department of Health district offices and local health departments conduct the day-to-day oversight of these systems, including reviewing and approving water treatment and infrastructure designs, receiving and evaluating the results of routine water sampling, verifying that violations have been corrected and taking appropriate enforcement action.
According to State Sanitary Code, the state's water systems are required to notify the public anytime high concentrations of contaminants or other water safety violations are discovered. Depending on how urgent or severe the violation, that notification may be required within 24 hours, 30 days or a year.
In the 58 instances where evidence of public notification was missing, six had the potential to result in acute or serious adverse health effects with short-term exposure — a situation that would have demanded 24-hour public notification.
Even when the public was notified, it wasn't always timely, the audit found. Of the 68 violations where evidence of public notice existed, 14 were issued late, including two that required a 24-hour turnaround but were instead broadcast a respective seven and 10 days late. Three violations should have been broadcast within 30 days, but did not become known to the public until anywhere from 154 to 397 days later, the audit found.
In response to the audit's preliminary findings, state health department officials pointed out that most of the negative findings did not involve Tier 1 violations — or public health hazards that would result in acute or serious adverse health effects from short-term exposure, such as E. coli bacteria.
They also stated that state water systems have a high level of compliance when it comes to water safety violations, with 98 percent of the systems reporting no violations in 2016 compared to the national average of 92.1 percent.
"We commend state (systems) for their high compliance rate," the audit report notes. "However, certain improvements to the department's oversight, as recommended in this report, will serve to better support systems' efforts and strengthen the integrity of the state's safe drinking water program."