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Virginia’s inspector general urges Office of Drinking water to step up enforcement

Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 5:16 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - One statewide agency says the office monitoring our drinking water needs to get tougher on enforcing state code.

The Office of the State Inspector General, or OSIG, just released an audit report of the Office of Drinking Water, a branch of the Virginia Department of Health.

OSIG’s auditors took a look at how effective and efficient the office is.

“I think we initiated this report primarily based on public interest,” said Adam Tagert, audit manager at OSIG. “There’d been concerns a few years back in Michigan that’s still ongoing. And you know as an agency and the fact that we try to look at services provided to citizens of Virginia, we wanted to make sure that those issues were not going to occur in Virginia.”

Camille Breland, advanced auditor at OSIG, said their report began last spring and concluded in June. The team examined ODW’s activities from 2018 to 2020.

“The report was focusing on compliance and enforcement of ODW,” she explained. “ODW is charged with evaluating local, public water systems. So we were looking at their compliance and enforcement policies in regards to that. As far as our approach and looking at ODW, we looked at their processes as far as enforcement and compliance is concerned. We learned that the regional field offices and their interactions with the public work systems.”

ODW is organized into six regions, servicing 2,700 local public water systems.

OSIG found ODW’s inspection program needs to ensure consistency statewide.

State Inspector General Michael C. Westfall wrote in a press release, “ODW leadership has taken a decentralized approach in the management of regional field offices, which has led to compliance and enforcement inconsistencies throughout the state and lessened opportunities to improve overall monitoring processes.”

OSIG’s auditors also found ODW is not using all tools at its disposal, such as fines, to prevent repeated and future violations of drinking water regulations.

“We found a couple instances where they had continued to work with the local public water system. And the local public water system was still not coming into compliance,” explained Tagert. “One of the instances that we found was there was a private, local water system where the waterworks was being transferred to the locality and VDH had requested that they notify the individuals on their private water system. And they had sent several reminders and still the local public water system had not complied. In that instance we felt that they should have used additional enforcement tools in order to ensure that the compliance requirements were met.”

Tagert explains the root of the issue was a hands-off approach ODW had taken to address compliance issues among waterworks throughout the state.

“They felt like if they did more hand-holding and kind of more hands-on work versus using their additional enforcement tools, they felt that they would get better results,” he said. “Our concern was that at some point when you can see that there’s not improvement at the local public water systems, you need to use those additional enforcement tools that are available to you, even though they obviously have a more negative connotation.”

Breland explained that OSIG made recommendations to ODW to make their policies and procedures stronger, suggesting they address the decentralization of enforcement and compliance to make sure there is consistency among the six regions.

“We also recommended that they use all the enforcement techniques that are available to make sure the water systems are becoming compliant,” she said.

But both Breland and Tager said ODW is taking a proactive approach, including developing a Compliance Specialist position to support regional field offices.

“I would say that hopefully they [Virginians] take away that ODW is out there, inspecting the local public water systems and making sure that the drinking water is safe,” Tager said. “And that thanks to their hard work and this audit that they will be able to do an even better job in the future to ensure safety of the drinking water.”

You can read ODW’s most recent annual compliance report here.

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