Federal Water Tap, October 31: Many Questions for EPA Lead Regulations

The Rundown

EPA report reveals dozens of considerations for new lead rules. Trial begins today in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit between Florida and Georgia over a shared river basin. Bernie Sanders urges the president to intervene in Dakota Access pipeline protest. Lead pollution and clean drinking water are two of EPA’s environmental justice challenges. The State Department responds to Alaska’s concerns about water pollution from British Columbia hardrock mining. Fisheries managers propose actions for Snake River Basin salmon and steelhead, while the Army Corps reviews a Columbia River coal export terminal. More water for the Colorado River delta appears likely. Indian tribes may play a bigger land and water management role. And lastly, the White House announces a California water data challenge.

“EPA understands that there is no single answer or simple solution for reducing lead in drinking water.” — Joel Beauvais, head of the EPA Office of Water, writing in a blog post about the development of revised federal drinking water regulations for lead.

By the Numbers

26.9 million: Number of people served by water systems with at least one drinking water violation. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

December 5: Due date for submissions in the California water data challenge. (Council on Environmental Quality)

44 million: Metric tons of coal that a proposed terminal on the Columbia River, in Washington state, could export annually. A draft environmental review of the terminal was recently released. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

$US 16 billion to $US 80 billion: Estimated cost of removing all lead service lines in the United States. (EPA)

News Briefs

Dakota Access Pipeline Protest Update
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) sent a letter to President Obama on October 28 urging him to take several actions to address two priorities. His priorities: the safety of the protestors and a full environmental review of the pipeline. His proposed actions: direct the Justice Department to send observers to the camp, order the Army Corps to halt construction within a mile of the highway that protestors blocked, and request that North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple remove National Guard troops from the area, to defuse tensions.

Tribes to Play Larger Role in Land and Water Management
At the same time that the Standing Rock Sioux is using its voice to protest the pipeline, the Interior secretary signed an order to bring the nation’s Indian tribes into the management of federal land and waters. The order directs Interior Department bureaus — such as the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and Fish and Wildlife Service — to identify opportunities for collaboration with tribes. It also makes note of the centuries of cultural knowledge that tribes have acquired:

“This order recognizes that tribes have special geographical, historical, and cultural connections to federal lands and waters, and that tribes have traditional ecological knowledge and practices regarding resources management that have been handed down through generations. Federal land and resource managers value this traditional knowledge, which enhances federal management decision-making and ensures a continued connection between tribes and federal lands and waters.”

State Department Responds to Alaska’s Mining Concerns
On September 8, Alaska’s three congressional representatives sent a letter to the State Department outlining their concern that pollution from hardrock mines in British Columbia could damage salmon runs on rivers in their state, located downstream.

On October 8, the State Department responded. In a letter to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the department listed official meetings and a cooperation agreement signed by British Columbia and Alaska authorities as notable steps toward reducing pollution risks.

Snake River Salmon Plan
To revive endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead in the Snake River Basin, federal fisheries managers called for a number of actions in a new management plan, including restoring flood plains, keeping sediment out of creeks, providing safer passage around dams, and returning beavers to the land.

The NOAA Fisheries recovery plan, however, does not address the concrete elephant in the basin: four dams on the lower Snake River that are the biggest barriers to salmon. The Army Corps and Bureau of Reclamation, at the direction of a federal judge, are beginning an environmental review of dam operations in the Columbia River Basin, which includes the Snake. Dam removal is one option that will likely be analyzed.

Public comments on the NOAA Fisheries plan are due by December 25 and can be sent to nmfs_snakeriver_ssch_st_plan.wcr@noaa.gov.

Columbia River Coal Export Terminal Draft Environmental Review
The Army Corps released a draft review of a proposed coal terminal on the Columbia River. Construction of the terminal would eliminate 24 acres of wetlands. Coal dust would settle on the river, but the corps claims that the toxic risk for fish and water quality is low.

Submit comments online through November 29.

HUD Acknowledges Climate Change in New Building Standards
Responding to President Obama’s January 2015 executive order on flood risk, The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will strengthen its building standards to be more resilient to rising seas and larger floods.

Public housing and HUD-funded developments in flood plains must be built two to three feet above the 100-year-flood mark, according to the proposed rule. Public comments are being accepted through December 27.

Kentucky Gains Wastewater Injection Authority
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted Kentucky the authority to administer and enforce the underground injection of oil and gas wastewater. Forty one states have this authority, called primacy, for oil and gas wastewater.

Studies and Reports

Lead and Copper Rule Considerations
The EPA outlined actions it could take to strengthen federal drinking water regulations for lead. One proposal is a full lead service line replacement program, but any such action must go through the agency’s cost-benefit analysis. Environmental health experts say that the only way to ensure that there is no lead poisoning is to remove all the lead pipes.

A second area of concern is sampling methods, which utilities can game to their advantage. The agency is also considering mandatory sampling for facilities not covered by current federal lead rules, such as schools.

Another interesting point: the EPA is considering a role for faucet filters in the new regulations. Filters would not be a permanent fix but could be mandated as a stopgap measure after street construction, which frees lead particles in old pipes.

The agency expects a draft rule in 2017.

EPA Environment Justice Report
Lead pollution and clean drinking water are two of four significant national environmental justice challenges, according to the EPA’s four-year plan for addressing the health of poor communities.

The agency’s goal is that all municipal water systems deliver water that meets federal standards. Currently 26.9 million people get water from systems with at least one violation.

The agency’s environmental justice mission has been criticize as ineffective. In a September 2016 report, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted that the EPA Office of Civil Rights has never made a formal finding of discrimination. The agency “is known for administrative delay in processing complaints, having an inadequate system for resolving complaints, referring the majority of complaints to other agencies, not engaging complainants in alternative dispute resolution, and for timid (if not entirely lacking) enforcement,” according to the report.

Waters of the U.S. Report
Republicans on the House Oversight Committee released a report condemning the EPA’s rule that defined the regulatory scope of the Clean Water Act as an “ideological policy agenda.”

Stormwater Planning Tool
The EPA released an online guide and toolkit to help communities manage urban water runoff from rain storms.

On the Radar

Florida v. Georgia Trial Begins
Today, in a courtroom in Portland, Maine, lawyers representing Florida and Georgia will present opening arguments in a federal lawsuit over a shared river basin.

Florida, with support from Alabama, also located downstream, claims that Georgia, the upstream state, is taking more water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint watershed than it is allowed and that Georgia’s water withdrawals should be capped. Its argument is laid out in a pretrial brief. Florida also argues for additional restrictions during drought years.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the lawsuit in November 2014. As is common in water cases, the court delegated responsibility to a “special mater,” in this case Ralph Lancaster, a Maine lawyer.

All the documents filed with the special master are found here.

More Water for Colorado River Delta
A forthcoming agreement between the United States and Mexico over the Colorado River will likely include water allocated to the river’s delta, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

“We anticipate including an environmental component in the next Colorado River agreement between the two countries, along with elements to address water conservation, water operations and drought response actions,” Patricia Aaron, a Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman wrote to Circle of Blue in an email.

A flush of water in the spring of 2014 brought lasting benefits to the delta ecosystem, according to a scientific assessment made public on October 19. The water was part of Minute 319, an agreement between the two countries that expires in 2017.

Big Money at Stake in Wastewater Case
When it rains hard and the excess water threatens to overwhelm a sewer system’s treatment capacity, some facilities divert a portion of the flow around the plant and mix it with the treated water before releasing it into a river or lake. Called “blending,” it’s a money-saving move. An EPA policy banning the practice was overturned by a federal appeals court in 2013.

However, the agency continued enforcing the rule in states outside the appeals court’s jurisdiction. Bloomberg BNA reports on a case before the D.C. Circuit appeals court that challenges the agency’s interpretation.

California Water Data
The White House Council on Environmental Quality and the state of California announced a water data challenge. The challenge: to take existing data sets and create apps or visualizations that assist the public or policymakers as they respond to water scarcity.

Entries are due December 5. Click the above link for details on submitting an entry.

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.