Federal Water Tap, April 25: Michigan Senators Seek Answers for Great Lakes Oil Pipeline

The Rundown

Michigan senators want to avoid a Great Lakes oil spill while Senate Democrats propose a large spending increase on water infrastructure. The full Senate, meanwhile, passes an energy bill. The Justice Department cut a deal with chemicals companies to clean up contaminated Los Angeles County groundwater. The House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on hydropower. And finally, warmer temperatures + bigger forests = less water in rivers?

“One of the most pressing items before the state of Michigan is to help prevent a catastrophic oil spill into the Great Lakes, especially from Enbridge’s Line 5 petroleum pipelines that run across the Straits of Mackinac…We urge you to move with the utmost speed and urgency to complete a transparent analysis of the Straits pipelines, including an independent review of pipeline conditions and a comprehensive alternatives assessment.” — Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, writing to Michigan officials about their concerns regarding the safety of the Line 5 oil pipeline.

By the Numbers

$US 78 million: Amount that 66 chemicals and related companies will pay to clean up contaminated groundwater at the Omega Chemical Corporation Superfund site in Los Angeles County, California. The former industrial site is contaminated with trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, freon, and other chemicals. (U.S. Department of Justice)

News Briefs

Lead and Water Bills
Senate Democrats introduced a $US 70 billion package of four bills aimed at cutting exposure to lead and investing in water infrastructure. Some 80 percent of the money, to be distributed over five years, is directed at the drinking water and wastewater revolving funds, which provide money to the states which in turn hand out low-interest loans to communities. That represents a five-fold increase over current revolving fund spending levels.

However, even if the bills pass — no easy task in today’s split Congress and in an election year when attention is often elsewhere — there is no guarantee that communities will see the money. Let’s repeat together: authorization, which is what a bill does, does not mean appropriation, which Congress is supposed to do each year. Appropriated funds may be significantly less than the authorized amount.

Energy Bill Passes Senate
By an 85 to 12 margin, the Senate passed the Energy Policy Modernization Act, the biggest energy policy bill since the second Bush administration. A number of sections and amendments deal with water:

  • Provisions to increase reservoir storage and irrigation supplies while reviving fish populations and river ecosystems in Washington’s Yakima watershed. “I hope it becomes a model for the rest of the country,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), its sponsor;
  • Provisions to classify hydropower as renewable energy;
  • Provisions to revise the water management manuals for at least 15 reservoirs to incorporate new data on the timing of water flows and releases. This should allow the reservoirs to respond to weather changes and hold more water.

The Senate bill must now be reconciled with a House bill that passed last December. That bill was criticized by river advocates for giving too much power for dam licensing to federal authorities.

Great Lakes Oil Pipeline Concerns
Michigan senators Gary Peters and Debbi Stabenow sent a letter to the governor, attorney general, and state environmental officials asking for a speedy but thorough safety review of Line 5, an oil pipeline that crosses the Great Lakes at the Straits of Mackinac.

“Every day that passes without a timeline for a final decision is another day with a 63-year-old pipeline at the bottom of the Great Lakes that poses a hazard to the people of Michigan,” they wrote.

The senators expressed serious concerns about the damage that a rupture would do to Great Lakes ecosystems and economies. They also want to ensure that Enbridge, the pipeline operator, is not breaking any laws. Earlier this month, green groups alleged that Line 5 is out of compliance with its operating agreement.

Attempt to Block Clean Water Act Rule Funding Denied
This again. An amendment from Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) to block federal funding for implementing the Obama administration’s rule to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act did not get the 60 votes it needed to pass. It received 56.

Studies and Reports

Bigger Forests, Less Water?
A warming planet may boost tree growth in some national forests to the point that water availability downstream decreases, according to a U.S. Forest Service analysis of 170 national forests and grasslands.

Average water yield — the amount that flows into streams — is projected to decrease by 4 to 7 percent by the end of the century under intermediate and severe climate change scenarios. There is wide variation. The biggest declines in water yield are in the Pacific Northwest, Northern Plains and Rockies, and Southwest. Coastal watersheds may seen an increase.

On the Radar

New England River Quality
The U.S. Geological Survey will begin sampling stream sites in June for a study of the health of rives in eight New England states. The focus of the study is the relationship between urbanization, agriculture, and river pollution. Researchers will test for toxicity, sediment, algae, methane, pesticides, mercury, pharmaceuticals, and fish populations. The USGS has completed similar analyses for the Midwest, Southeast, and the Pacific Northwest.

Hydropower Hearing
The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on April 27 titled “Realizing the Potential of Hydropower as a Clean, Renewable, and Domestic Energy Source.” It should be noted that hydropower is renewable only as long as the rivers run. And “clean” depends on methane emissions from decomposing vegetation, which varies according to geography.

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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