News Feature | November 17, 2016

Study Highlights Systemically Poor Federal Oversight Of Tribal Utilities

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

A new study raises questions about whether federal regulators are doing enough to protect the safety of tap water consumers on tribal lands.

The study from Texas A&M researchers investigated “the implementation of U.S. environmental protection laws under American Indian tribal governance,” according to the paper, published last month in Policy Studies Journal.

“Because Indian reservations are homes to a disproportionately poor, historically subjugated racial group, analysis of environmental programs on tribal lands offers a unique perspective on environmental justice,” the study continued.

With that in mind, the researchers analyzed Clean Water Act (CWA) and Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) compliance and enforcement on tribal lands.

The findings?

“Analysis reveals that, compared with non-tribal facilities, tribal facilities experience less rigorous CWA and SDWA enforcement and are more likely to violate these laws,” the study said.

Here are some of the most significant stats from the study, per a report in Environmental Health News:

They report that tribal facilities received about 44 percent fewer inspections under the Clean Water Act — which regulates pollution discharged into water — from 2010 to 2015 compared to treatment and drinking water plants not on tribal land. Tribal facilities were also 12 percent less likely to face federal enforcement — such as fines and other measures to encourage compliance — under the Safe Water Drinking Act than non-tribal counterparts. During that time tribal utilities had 57 percent more drinking water health violations than non-tribal facilities, according to the researchers' data.

Manny Teodoro, one of the researchers, summed up the findings like this: “This suggests regulatory neglect.”

Along with poor oversight, water pollution and a lack of universal access to tap water are two major water problems on tribal lands. A VICE News report focused on the Navajo Nation said about 40 percent of residents lack access to tap water.