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Statement on Signing the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986

June 19, 1986

I am signing today S. 124, the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986. This legislation reauthorizes and amends the law that establishes Federal regulation of the Nation's public drinking water systems. The Safe Drinking Water Act was enacted in 1974 to assure that public drinking water supplies are safe.

Impetus for the original law was provided by studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency in the early 1970's which showed that many public water supplies were periodically contaminated by synthetic organic chemicals. To protect the quality of the Nation's drinking water, the original law directs the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to establish national drinking water standards, enforceable by the States, that are designed to protect the public health. In addition, the act requires the Administrator of the EPA to regulate State underground injection control programs to protect underground sources of drinking water. Operators of public water systems are required to monitor the water quality to assure compliance with EPA standards.

Experience gained by the EPA and the States in administering the Safe Drinking Water Act has shown that some revisions to the original Act, designed to improve program administration, are desirable. The legislation I am signing today contains some of these reforms, including:

—provisions simplifying and streamlining the standard-setting process. These provisions will assure that drinking water contaminants will be regulated in a more timely fashion;

—provisions strengthening the EPA's enforcement authorities when a State fails to enforce the national standards. Most importantly, the EPA is given administrative order and penalty authority, allowing the EPA to take administrative action in certain cases rather than being forced to resort to court action in all cases to enforce the provisions of the act whenever a violation occurs; and

—provisions allowing the EPA, in certain instances, to delegate enforcement authority to Indian Tribes in the same way that such authority is currently being delegated to States.

This legislation, however, does include provisions that are not supported by the administration. I agree with the necessity for the EPA to regulate drinking water contaminants posing a significant health threat as expeditiously as possible. I believe, however, that the statutorily mandated requirement to regulate specified listed contaminants seriously curtails the EPA Administrator's flexibility to determine which contaminants actually need to be regulated to protect the public health, and when.

The legislation also provides for the establishment of a new sole-source aquifer demonstration program and a new wellhead protection program that are not supported by the administration. When originally introduced, we observed that these new programs represented significant and unwarranted intrusions into local and State land-use control and water-use decisions. Although we certainly agree that ground water needs to be protected from major contaminants, we believe that States have the principal role in protecting this valuable resource, and that the EPA has sufficient statutory authority to assist the States where appropriate. In fact, the Federal Government can never hope adequately to protect the ground water resources of America without the major participation and indeed the leadership of State and local communities, and S. 124 reflects this important understanding.

The conference-approved version of these provisions represents significant improvement over the ground water provision contained in the original House bill. I am assured that the ground water grant program in S. 124 as enrolled cannot be used as an instrument to create a new Federal regulatory program. In fact, the only sanction applied to States that fail to develop an approved ground water program would be the loss of their Federal grant money for running the program. Neither can the bill's provisions establish a major Federal presence in highly sensitive local land-use decisions that could affect ground water. I read the bill as not authorizing direct and detailed Federal intervention in State planning and control of land use, and I hereby direct the EPA to recognize to the fullest extent the primacy of State Governments in decisions affecting ground water in the implementation of this act.

Further, there are certain enforcement provisions that I believe are of questionable validity. For example, the bill uses language that suggests that some enforcement actions are mandatory. The principle of prosecutorial discretion is an essential ingredient in the execution of the laws. I believe that the Congress cannot bind the Executive in advance and remove all prosecutorial discretion without infringing on the powers of the Executive. It is unrealistic to expect that the EPA will ever have the resources or the need to take formal enforcement action against each and every violation of the act, without regard to how trivial the violation or unfair an enforcement action would be.

Note: S. 124, approved June 19, was assigned Public Law No. 99-339.

Ronald Reagan, Statement on Signing the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986 Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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