State publishes audit looking into Lousiana Department of Health Safe Water Drinking Program

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BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — The Louisiana Department of Health is getting better at addressing issues over its Safe Drinking Water Program, according to a new state audit.

In Louisiana, there are over 1,400 water systems that supply drinking water to the state, according to Performance Audit Manager Emily Dixon.

“So, it could be ones that come out of your tap at home, in the subdivisions, schools, campgrounds any kind of hospitals, so it’s basically any water that is for consumption,” Dixon said.

Since January 2017, OPH has created an additional 40 sanitarian positions and resumed collecting most water samples used to test for contamination instead of relying on water systems to collect these samples. As a result, the number of monitoring violations decreased by 97.0%, from 905 in fiscal year 2016 to 27 in fiscal year 2021. In addition, revenue from Act 605 of the 2016 Regular Legislative Session has allowed OPH to conduct routine monitoring for secondary contaminants including iron and manganese, and to continue sampling for Naegleria fowleri using risk-based selection criteria. The exhibit below shows SDWP water fee revenues collected by OPH and the number of sanitarians on staff during fiscal years 2016 through 2021.

Louisiana Legislative Auditor, Progress Report: Safe Drinking Water Program
Louisiana Department of Health, Office of Public Health

Over the last five years, the state auditor’s office has published two audits about the Louisiana Department of Health’s Safe Drink Water Program. The first was in 2016 with seven suggestions, and the second followed the next year with an additional two recommendations, including the need to collect more samples.

“The quality of the water is important. You use it for not only drinking but wash your clothes and wash your dishes and to bathe in,” Dixon said.

OPH has improved in conducting timely sanitary surveys of water systems. During fiscal years 2016 through 2021, OPH conducted required sanitary surveys on all 1,406 active water systems, which is an improvement from our August 2016 audit that found OPH only conducted 1,075 (89.0%) of 1,208 required sanitary surveys during fiscal years 2009 through 2014. However, OPH did not always issue violations when water systems did not resolve significant deficiencies identified on sanitary surveys. As of June 2021, OPH had not issued violations for 10 (8.5%) of 118 unresolved significant deficiencies identified during fiscal years 2016 through 2021.

Louisiana Legislative Auditor, Progress Report: Safe Drinking Water Program
Louisiana Department of Health, Office of Public Health

A new audit report released Monday said the department has complied with all but one of the suggestions.

“The agency OPH within the Department of Health is really making strides in from what we can see cares about the drinking water of the state and is striving to make improvements where they can,” Dixon said.

OPH escalated enforcement actions in accordance with policy when water systems did not correct violations for nine (90.0%) of 10 Administrative Orders (AOs) we reviewed. This is an improvement from our 2016 audit, where we found that OPH did not follow its enforcement process in five (33.3%) of the 15 AOs we reviewed. However, OPH did not issue AOs for 36 (92.3%) of 39 unresolved non-health-based violations cited during fiscal years 2016 through 2021 in accordance with its criteria for issuing AOs. In addition, OPH has not yet developed and implemented a data system that effectively tracks its issued enforcement actions.

Louisiana Legislative Auditor, Progress Report: Safe Drinking Water Program
Louisiana Department of Health, Office of Public Health

The department still needs a new data system to better track their enforcement actions, but Dixon said they are working on that.

OPH has improved in its issuance of violations to water systems that do not notify their customers of noncompliance with drinking water regulations. During fiscal years 2016 through 2021, OPH issued violations to water systems for 2,348 (99.5%) of 2,359 unperformed public notifications, as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This is an improvement from our August 2016 audit that found OPH did not issue violations for 363 (35.4%) of 1,025 unperformed public notifications.

Louisiana Legislative Auditor, Progress Report: Safe Drinking Water Program
Louisiana Department of Health, Office of Public Health

“They had a database that they tried for eighteen months but it didn’t work out, so they are in the process of working on this,” Dixon said. “They estimated that it would take four to five years to develop and cost over $200,000.”

OPH now collects additional financial and managerial information during onsite inspections to identify water systems that may need to participate in its Capacity Development Program. In addition, OPH has started requiring participation in the Capacity Development Program as a remedial action in AOs. While OPH does not have the authority to issue penalties to water systems simply for failure to participate in the Program, it can impose penalties when systems do not comply with other aspects of an AO.

Louisiana Legislative Auditor, Progress Report: Safe Drinking Water Program
Louisiana Department of Health, Office of Public Health

Click here for the full report.

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