Lawmakers find a path for Flint aid but they are not at the finish line yet. Exxon agrees to a $US 12 million oil spill settlement, and Southern Coal Corporation will pay $US 5 million for Clean Water Act violations. The EPA grants Clean Water Act powers to Indian tribes and considers water quality standards for reservations. The Souris River Basin in North Dakota has a two percent chance of repeating the historic floods of 2011 within a decade. Federal agencies review a coal-fired power plant on Navajo land and the effect of Columbia River Basin dams on salmon.
“I said last night that I understand the implications of the state and the local governments’ responsibilities, but I also feel, when children are poisoned, that the federal government has an immense responsibility. To me, women, children, and the elderly becoming ill because of lead-tainted water is an ‘everybody’ problem, and this body has a political and a moral responsibility to help the people of Flint right this wrong.” — Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) speaking on the House floor during the debate about Flint funding.
“The crisis in Flint is beyond belief. But there are many, many other systems around the country that are far from meeting federal water quality standards, and many of these are communities that lack the resources themselves to deal with it. The federal government used to partner significantly on water and wastewater projects. The federal government has pretty much walked away from that responsibility.” — Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) addressing infrastructure spending during the House debate about Flint funding.
By the Numbers
$US 12 million: Fine that ExxonMobil Pipeline Company will pay for a pipeline rupture that spilled 63,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River in 2011. The money will be used to restore fish and bird habitat on the river. (Department of Justice)
$US 5 million: Cost to Southern Coal Corporation of complying with a federal settlement over Clean Water Act violations. The company, which is owned by the Democratic candidate for governor of West Virginia, will also pay a $US 900,000 civil penalty for putting more mine waste into streams in five southeastern states than its permits allow. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
2 percent: Chance in the next decade that, if wet climate conditions in the Upper Midwest continue, a flood similar to the catastrophic 2011 event will occur in the Souris River Basin in North Dakota. The flood five years ago registered river flows twice as high as the previous record. (U.S. Geological Survey)
Budget and Flint Aid Impasse Untangled, For Now
The House passed a $US 5 billion water infrastructure bill that includes $US 170 million to replace the plumbing in Flint, Michigan. That last-minute addition to the Water Resources Development Act allowed Flint aid to be pulled from a budget bill that the Senate approved.
There is still work to be done on the water funding. The House bill must be reconciled with the Senate version, which is double the cost.
EPA Grants Clean Water Act Power to Indian Tribes
Indian tribes now have the authority, same as states, to establish pollution limits for waters on their reservations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule that allows tribes to set total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), which in effect are pollution “diets” for waterways. Industries or municipalities located next to a reservation could be affected by the rule change, if a tribe adopts a stricter standards than currently exist.
Studies and Reports
Harmful Algal Bloom Research
The U.S. Geological Survey published an overview of its research into cyanobacteria, the organisms that produce the toxic algal blooms that are now a coast-to-coast problem.
Navajo Power Plant and Coal Mine Study
The Bureau of Reclamation released a draft environmental review of extending the lease agreement for a coal-fired power plant on Navajo land and the mine that supplies it. The lease, which expires in 2019, would be extended through 2044.
Navajo Generating Station provides more than 90 percent of the electricity for the Central Arizona Project, which delivers Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson.
Public comments are due by November 29 and can be emailed to NGSKMC-EIS@usbr.gov.
New Drinking Water Regulation
The EPA is developing limits for perchlorate in drinking water. Perchlorate is a chemical used in rocket fuel and other explosives. The agency is seeking comment on the scientific models it is using to inform the standards. Submit comments at www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2016-0438.
On the Radar
Tribal Water Quality Standards
The EPA is considering whether it should set water quality standards for the roughly 250 federally recognized reservations that do not have them. Standards define the uses of each water body and are the basis for pollution discharge permits.
Public comments are being accepted through December 28. Submit then at www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2016-0405.
Columbia River Dams Study
Three federal agencies that operate dams, canals, and electric power infrastructure along the Columbia River will begin an environmental review of their operations. Earlier this year a federal judge ordered the agencies to reexamine how 14 large dams in the watershed affect salmon. The effect of removing dams, a long-running and divisive debate, will be part of the analysis.
Public comments on the scope of the review are due by January 17, 2017 and can be emailed to email@example.com. The draft review is expected by March 2020.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton