Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Compliance and Defense - Federal Lawyer
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Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Compliance and Defense

Our EPA Lawyers and Consultants Are Experienced in All Aspects of Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Compliance and Defense

Carlton S. Patton
Carlton S. Patton
Safe Drinking Water Act Team Lead
Former EPA CID Special Agent
Nick Oberheiden
Attorney Nick Oberheiden
Safe Drinking Water Act Team Lead
envelope icon Contact Nick

Among all of the federal statutes within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforcement jurisdiction, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is arguably among the most important. It is also undoubtedly among the least well-known. The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed to protect public health by regulating the nation’s water supply and protect drinking water quality. Companies in a broad range of industries need to take proactive steps to comply with the SDWA, and those that fail to do so can face steep penalties.

At Oberheiden P.C., we assist companies throughout the United States with all aspects of Safe Drinking Water Act compliance. We also represent companies in EPA enforcement proceedings targeting potential SDWA violations. Our lawyers and consultants work closely with our clients to help them implement effective compliance and defense strategies as cost-effectively as possible.

4 Key Areas of Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Compliance

While the Safe Drinking Water Act is a complex statute that establishes obligations for companies, municipalities, and the EPA itself, companies’ obligations under the statute fall into four broad categories. The EPA actively enforces companies’ obligations in each of these categories, and violations can lead to civil or criminal penalties. The three key areas of SDWA compliance are: (i) safeguarding drinking water sources; (ii) public water systems; (iii) underground injection control; and, (iv) consumers’ right to know.

1. Safeguarding Drinking Water Sources

The EPA heavily regulates the discharge of pollutants and introduction of contaminants into the U.S. drinking water ecosystem—including specifically the pollution and contamination of drinking water sources. Companies that produce, discharge, transport, dispose of, and store pollutants and contaminants that have the potential to end up in drinking water must ensure that they are taking adequate steps to comply with the SDWA (in addition to the Clean Water Act (CWA) and other pertinent laws and regulations).

2. Public Water System

Under its Public Water System Supervision (PWSS) program, the EPA regulates all public drinking water systems that serve at least 15 service connections or 25. Importantly, despite the EPA’s use of the term “public drinking water systems,” these systems may be publicly or privately owned.

Companies that operate public drinking water systems must ensure strict compliance with the SDWA; and, equally important, they must be prepared to demonstrate their compliance protocols to the EPA (or state authorities working with the EPA under the PWSS program) when necessary. Inspections of public drinking water systems are common, and these inspections can present substantial risks for companies that are not prepared.

3. Underground Injection Control

The EPA also heavily regulates and closely scrutinizes underground injection operations. As the agency explains, under its Underground Injection Control (UIC) program, it “regulates the construction, operation, permitting and closure of injection wells . . . to ensure that underground injection wells do not endanger any current and future underground sources of drinking water (USDWs).”

Similar to other areas of SDWA compliance, underground injection compliance requires an informed and forward-thinking approach—particularly given the EPA’s focus on protecting both current and future USDWs. Companies engaged in underground injection operations will typically need to comply with a multitude of other statutes and regulations as well, so a comprehensive and custom-tailored EPA compliance program is essential.

4. Consumers’ Right to Know

Under the SDWA, consumers in the U.S. have the right to know what is in their drinking water. This, in turn, means that companies have an obligation to provide consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions. Companies that are subject to the SDWA must comply with its consumer confidence report (CCR) rule and public notification rule—which means that they must actively monitor for contaminants and proactively notify consumers (and the EPA) of concerns when necessary.

Regulated Contaminants Under the SDWA

The EPA regulates close to 100 contaminants that have the potential to compromise the safety of public drinking water systems in the United States. These include both chemical and microbial contaminants. At Oberheiden P.C., we represent companies across the United States in connection with all types of drinking water contamination-related concerns, including (but not limited to) those involving:

  • Arsenic
  • Coliform
  • Copper
  • Lead
  • Radionuclides

Again, these are just examples. In many cases, companies must comply not only with the generally applicable provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, but with contaminant-specific provisions as well. The lawyers and consultants on our EPA team can explain everything you need to know, and we can help your company take all of the steps necessary to avoid SDWA penalties.

Our SDWA Compliance Services

Complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act can present a variety of challenges depending on the nature and scope of a company’s operations and the specific provisions with which it needs to comply. With this in mind, our SDWA compliance services include:

  • SDWA Compliance Needs Assessment – When engaged to assist companies with SDWA compliance, our first step is to comprehensively assess their specific statutory and regulatory obligations.
  • SDWA Compliance Program Development and Implementation – After identifying all pertinent obligations, we then work closely with our clients to develop custom-tailored SDWA compliance programs that they can implement efficiently throughout their organizations.
  • Compliance Monitoring, Enforcement, and Reporting – We also provide assistance with monitoring and enforcing our clients’ efforts—so that they can effectively manage compliance on an ongoing basis. When necessary, we assist our clients with meeting their reporting and notification obligations as well.

Our SDWA Defense Services

Since non-compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act can expose companies (and their owners, executives, and personnel) to substantial penalties, a strategic defense is critical when facing scrutiny from the EPA. Our SDWA defense services include:

  • Helping Our Clients Prepare for SDWA Inspections – Companies that are prepared for their SDWA inspections can efficiently and successfully navigate the inspection process. We work with our clients to ensure that they are thoroughly prepared.
  • Protecting Our Clients During SDWA Inspections and Investigations – We also defend our clients during SDWA inspections and investigations. We communicate with the EPA on behalf of our clients, executing defense strategies that are based on the specific facts and circumstances at hand.
  • Securing Favorable Outcomes that Avoid Unnecessary Consequences – For clients that are facing civil or criminal enforcement under the SDWA, we focus on securing a favorable outcome that avoids unnecessary consequences. In most cases, this means either avoiding penalties entirely or negotiating a resolution with the EPA that avoids formal charges.

FAQs: SDWA Compliance (and the Risks of Non-Compliance)

What Companies Need to Comply with the Safe Water Drinking Act?

The Safe Water Drinking Act applies to companies that operate and manage public drinking water systems. It also applies to companies that engage in operations that involve pollutants or contaminants that have the potential to compromise the safety of these systems. As a result, its scope is extremely broad, and companies in a wide range of industries must address the SDWA when developing their EPA compliance programs.

How Does the EPA Enforce the Safe Water Drinking Act?

The EPA enforces the Safe Water Drinking Act through inspections and investigations. Companies can face EPA scrutiny under the SDWA for a variety of reasons—from routine inspections of public drinking water systems to inspections triggered by public complaints. In all cases, SDWA enforcement can present substantial risks, as the statute includes provisions for both civil and criminal enforcement.

What Are the Penalties for Non-Compliance with the Safe Water Drinking Act?

In civil enforcement cases, companies can face fines of up to nearly $70,000 per day (as of 2024) for continuing violations. In criminal enforcement cases, companies can face even greater fines, and individuals charged with participating in criminal SDWA violations can face both fines and federal imprisonment. Most criminal violations carry up to three years of federal prison time for the individuals involved.

How Can Companies Avoid Non-Compliance with the Safe Water Drinking Act?

Avoiding non-compliance with the Safe Water Drinking Act involves taking a proactive approach to developing and implementing a custom-tailored compliance program. As with all areas of EPA compliance, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, to manage compliance effectively, companies need to focus on addressing all pertinent statutory and regulatory requirements within the specific context of their operations.

How Do I Choose a Law Firm for SDWA Compliance or Defense?

Due to the complexity of the Safe Water Drinking Act and the substantial risks of non-compliance, it is imperative that companies engage highly experienced counsel for both compliance and defense matters. At Oberheiden P.C., our team includes former federal prosecutors and former EPA agents who have experience on both sides of SDWA enforcement cases. We rely on this experience to provide custom-tailored, efficient, and effective representation to our clients.

Schedule a Complimentary Initial Consultation at Oberheiden P.C.

If you would like to know more about our SDWA compliance or defense services, we invite you to get in touch. To schedule a complimentary initial consultation with a senior EPA lawyer or consultant at Oberheiden P.C., please call 888-680-1745 or tell us how we can help online today.

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