Federal Water Tap, October 20: EPA Plans to Regulate New Drinking Water Contaminant

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its intent to regulate drinking water supplies for strontium, a naturally occurring metal that affects bone development.

As many as 10 million Americans are supplied by water systems, particularly those using groundwater, in which strontium levels may cause health problems, according to the agency’s analysis.

Draft standards for allowable levels of strontium in drinking water will be published within 24 months.

The EPA is required every five years to publish a list of contaminants that are known to occur in drinking water but are not regulated. Some 116 contaminants were identified in the most recent update, published in 2009. From that list the agency must decide if regulations are necessary for at least five contaminants. The decision is based on availability of data and evidence of a “public health concern,” a factor without a clear definition. Only strontium, made the cut. The four contaminants that will not be regulated are 1,3-dinitrobenzene (an industrial chemical), dimethoate (a bug killer), terbufos (also a bug killer) and terbufos sulfone (a byproduct of terbufos).

Comments on the proposal are due December 19. They should be submitted via www.regulations.gov, referencing docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2012-0155.

Hydropower Development
To encourage the installation of equipment to generate electricity at existing dams that do not have hydropower capability, the Department of Energy is offering $US 3.6 million in incentive payments. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized the payments, but Congress had not appropriated any money for the program until last year’s budget deal.

Payments are based on the amount of electricity generated. Comments on the proposal are due November 4 and should be emailed to hydroincentive@ee.doe.gov.

Mercury in Rivers
Fish living one in four streams in the United States have enough methylmercury in their flesh that people should not eat them, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report that assesses nearly two decades of mercury research. Methylmercury is the form of mercury that slowly accumulates in fish bodies and can cause brain damage and hormone disruption in humans.

The long-term trend, however, is a bright spot. Mercury concentrations have decreased since federal regulations for air and water were introduced in the 1970s, the report asserts.

But caution is needed in certain areas. Wetlands easily convert inorganic mercury into methylmercury, leading the USGS to warn that wetland restoration projects, while providing habitat and water-storing benefits, should be balanced against the potential to increase methylmercury in nearby water bodies.

Coal-burning accounts for more than half of mercury emissions in the United States.

Climate Change and Agriculture
Helping farmers adapt to warmer temperatures and more variable rainfall is a goal of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the department does not have standards for measuring success, according to the federal government’s internal watchdog.

The Government Accountability Office recommends that the USDA develop these measures, as well as provide information to farmers about the costs and benefits of specific adaptation actions, such as not plowing fields to conserve moisture.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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