Fact Sheet: Drinking Water Public Notification

Public notification lets consumers know if there is a problem with their drinking water.

What is public notification?

Public notification is intended to ensure that consumers will always know if there is a problem with their drinking water. Public water systems must notify the people who drink their water if the level of a contaminant in the water exceeds Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and/or Massachusetts Drinking Water Regulations; if there is a waterborne disease outbreak or any other situation that may pose a risk to public health; if the water system fails to test its water as required; or if the system has a variance or exemption from the regulations. Depending on the severity of the situation, water suppliers have from 24 hours to one year to notify their customers. EPA sets strict requirements on the form, manner, content, and frequency of public notices.

Public notification is provided in addition to the annual water quality report (consumer confidence report, or CCR), which provides customers with a more complete picture of drinking water quality and system operations. The annual CCR tells consumers what's in their water, where it comes from, and where they can obtain additional information.

Where can I get a copy of the PN regulations?

Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) regulations for public notification were adopted on November 9, 2001 and the most recent revision included Emergency Response and the Ground Water Rule. Copies of the final PN regulations (see section 310 CMR 22.16 of the Drinking Water Regulations) may be obtained from the MassDEP website.

What are some of the requirements of PN?

  • The regulation divides public notice into three tiers:
    • Tier 1, for violations and situations with significant potential to have serious adverse effects on human health as a result of short-term exposure. Notice is required within 24 hours of the violation.
    • Tier 2, for other violations and situations with potential to have serious, but not immediate, adverse effects on human health. Notice is required within 30 days, or as soon as possible, with extension of up to three months for resolved violations at the discretion of MassDEP.
    • Tier 3, for all other violations and situations not included in Tier 1 and Tier 2. Unless otherwise specified in writing by MassDEP, notice is required within 12 months of the violation, and may be part of a single annual report, including in some cases the annual CCR already required, or as in the case of TNC, provided by MassDEP.
  • Consultation requirement.
    Water systems must consult with MassDEP within 24 hours of a Tier 1 violation to receive direction on subsequent requirements. During non-working hours MassDEP can be reached at the emergency number 888-304-1133.
  • Standard language.
    Standard language is required for monitoring violations. Recipients of public notices are also encouraged, (through standard distribution language in notices) to further distribute the notices to people who may not receive a notice (such as tenants or hospital patients).
  • Streamlined distribution of notices.
    Water systems are required to select a single minimum method for each tier from a regulatory list and to take additional steps of their own choosing that are reasonably calculated to reach all the other persons served. The minimum required methods of delivery listed in the regulation include the media, hand delivery, or posting for Tier 1 notices, and direct mail, hand delivery, or posting for Tier 2 and Tier 3 notices.
  • Certification of Compliance. 
    Water systems are required to certify to MassDEP within 10 days that they have met all public notice requirements.

What types of violations and situations are covered under each tier?

The MassDEP Drinking Water Regulations, 310 CMR 22.16, Table 6, contains a listing of every violation and situation requiring a public notice and its tier. The tier to which the violation or situation is assigned determines the requirements for the timing of the public notice and the form and manner of its delivery. For example, a total coliform violation where fecal coliform is present falls under Tier 1, which requires notification delivery within 24 hours by (at a minimum) appropriate broadcast media, posting, or hand delivery. Please note that there are new requirements for public notification under the new Groundwater Rule. See Table 1 below for the list of violation types and situations identified under each tier.

What are EPA requirements for the form, manner, and content of the public notices?

The rule sets minimum methods of delivery under each tier, but also requires that water systems take steps reasonably calculated to reach others not reached by the minimum method. Each notice must contain information addressing ten elements, including use of standard health effects language for maximum contaminant level (MCL) and treatment technique violations and standard language for monitoring violations. The MassDEP Drinking Water Regulations, 310 CMR 22.16, Table 7, contains the required language of all listed violations. Public water systems serving a large proportion of non-English speaking consumers are also required to include information in the notice in languages other than English.

Which public water systems are affected by the regulation?

All public water systems are required to comply with the public notification rule.

How is MassDEP helping public water systems with new requirements?

MassDEP has provided templates of all notices on its website and will refer public water systems to the EPA and the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) Public Notification Handbook that will assist water systems in implementing the revised regulation. This EPA/ASDWA Handbook provides templates for notices and other aids to help water systems develop notices for violation situations. The EPA/ASDWA Handbook templates are non-state specific so Massachusetts water suppliers are required to use the Massachusetts version of the templates for compliance purposes. Copies of the Massachusetts PN templates are available on the MassDEP website.

Table 1:

Violations and Situations Requiring Public Notice

Tier 1 Public Notice - Required Within 24 Hours

  • Violation of the MCL for total coliforms when fecal coliform or E. coli are present, or failure to test for fecal coliforms or E. coli  when any repeat sample tests positive for coliform
  • Nitrate/nitrite/total nitrate and nitrite/perchlorate MCL violation or failure to take confirmation sample
  • Special public notice for non-community water systems with nitrate exceedance between 10 mg/l and 20 mg/l, when allowed to exceed MCL (10 mg/l) by MassDEP
  • Chlorine dioxide maximum residual distribution level (MRDL) violation in distribution system or failure to take repeat samples in distribution system
  • Exceedance of maximum allowable turbidity level resulting in an MCL or treatment technique (TT) violation, when MassDEP or EPA determines a Tier 1 notice is warranted, or when consultation does not take place within 24 hours.
  • Waterborne disease outbreak or other waterborne emergency
  • Other situations as determined by MassDEP
  • Emergencies defined in 310 CMR 22.04(13) of the Drinking Water Regulations
  • Detection of E.coli, enterococci, or coliphage in GWR source water samples

Tier 2 Public Notice - Required Within 30 Days (unless extended to 90 days by DEP)

  • All other MCL, MRDL, and TT violations not identified as a Tier 1 notice
  • Monitoring and testing procedure violations, when MassDEP requires a Tier 2 (rather than Tier 3) notice
  • Failure to comply with variance and exemption (V&E) conditions
  • Failure to take corrective action or failure to maintain at least a 4-log virus treatment
  • Changes in corrosion control treatment (longer than 7 days)

Tier 3 Public Notice - Required Within 1 Year (Unless otherwise specified in writing by MassDEP)

  • All other monitoring or testing procedure violations not already requiring a Tier 1 or Tier 2 notice
  • Operation under a V & E
  • Special public notices (i.e., exceedance of the fluoride secondary maximum contaminant level (SMCL); announcing the availability of unregulated contaminant monitoring results)

For assistance on the new public notification requirements:

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