Next Up for EPA: Ensuring Clean Drinking Water on Airline Flights

WASHINGTON, DC, January 31, 2011 (ENS) -The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today published a final rule to ensure that safe and reliable drinking water is provided to aircraft passengers and crew. The rule requires airlines to have their water systems inspected at least once every five years, report the test results to the EPA and fix any "significant deficiencies."

The Aircraft Drinking Water Rule issued today was prompted by an EPA inspection in 2004 that found all aircraft public water systems were out of compliance with the national primary drinking water regulations.

The new rule provides multiple-barrier protection through requirements for coliform sampling, best management practices, corrective action, public notification, monitoring and operator training, in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The EPA rule applies to the aircraft's onboard water system only. The rule will better protect the public from illnesses caused by microbiological contamination, the agency says.

"This rule is a significant step forward in protecting people's health when they travel," said Peter Silva, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Water. "EPA has taken this step to make sure the public has drinking water that meets standards, both in the air and on the ground."

Still, the agency advises that passengers with compromised immune systems or anyone else who is concerned may want to request canned or bottled beverages and avoid drinking coffee, tea, and other drinks prepared with tap water.

All U.S. airlines must test and report the cleanliness of their drinking water systems once every five years. (Photo credit unknown)

The EPA assumes that air carriers will pass on some or all of the costs of the new regulation to their passengers in the form of ticket price increases.

EPA estimates that 708.4 million passengers travel each year on aircraft that are affected by the Aircraft Drinking Water Rule.

EPA estimates air carriers' total annualized cost to implement the final rule to be about $6.95 million. Doing the math, EPA calculates that passengers could face a price increase of about one cent per ticket.

The new final rule requires that each air carrier must conduct a self-inspection of each aircraft water system no less frequently than once every five calendar years. Reporting the results of those inspections to the EPA will begin 18 months from today.

To facilitate collection and analysis of aircraft public water systems data, EPA is developing an Internet-based electronic data collection and management system.

In addition, EPA may conduct compliance audits whenever the agency believes they are necessary.

Under the new rule, air carriers must address "significant deficiencies" found as a result of routine compliance audits within 90 days, or where deficiencies are identified during extended or heavy maintenance, before the aircraft is put back into service.

Drinking water safety on airlines is jointly regulated by the U.S. EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

EPA regulates the public water systems that supply water to the airports and the drinking water once it is onboard the aircraft. The regulatory structure for all public water systems, including aircraft, relies upon self-monitoring and reporting of results to the primary enforcement agency. That agency for aircraft public water systems is EPA.

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for regulating the airport watering points such as pipes or tankers at the airport, including the water cabinets, carts, trucks, and hoses from which aircraft board water.

FDA also has jurisdiction over the water used in food preparation, including coffee, tea and ice.

The Federal Aviation Administration oversees operation and maintenance programs covering all parts of the aircraft, including the drinking water system.

In 2004, EPA inspectors found all aircraft public water systems to be out of compliance with the national primary drinking water regulations.

According to the air carriers, it is not feasible for them to comply with all of the monitoring that is required in the existing regulations. The existing national primary drinking water regulations were designed for traditional, stationary public water systems, not mobile aircraft water systems that are operationally very different.

After the out-of-compliance situation was uncovered, EPA tested 327 aircraft of which 15 percent tested positive for total coliform. "EPA considers this to be a high percentage of positive samples," the agency said.

In response to these findings, EPA embarked on an accelerated process to tailor existing regulations for aircraft public water systems.

In the interim, EPA placed 45 air carriers under Administrative Orders on Consent. Under this type of legal agreement, the violator agrees to pay for correction of violations, take the required corrective or cleanup actions, or refrain from an activity.

Until the final rule's reporting compliance dates, air carriers remain subject to the existing national primary drinking water regulations or their AOCs.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.

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