Federal Water Tap, April 17: EPA Pauses Rule that Restricts Power Plants from Dumping Toxic Metals into Rivers

The Rundown

EPA administrator postpones the implementation date for rule to keep arsenic, mercury, and other power plant toxics from rivers, while also beginning a separate process to repeal or modify existing regulations. EPA inspector general says that the agency needs better health warnings for people who eat contaminated fish. An energy company wants to draw water from a large reservoir on the Louisiana-Texas border for natural gas development. The U.S. Geology Survey publishes reports on aquifers in Idaho and Wisconsin and along the Nevada-Utah border. The White House proposes to reduce the number of executive branch employees, a “reorganization” that could dramatically reshape the federal government. And lastly, has President Trump called Nebraska’s governor about the Keystone XL pipeline?

“Some of our nation’s largest job producers have objected to this rule, saying the requirements set by the Obama administration are not economically or technologically feasible within the proscribed timeframe. It is in the public’s best interest to reconsider the rule and assess the wide-ranging and sweeping objections that the agency received.” — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, in a statement explaining that the agency is reviewing an Obama administration rule that limits the amount of arsenic, mercury, and other toxic metals that power plants can dump in rivers.

A group of energy utilities and the U.S. Small Business Administration requested the agency review the rule. Pruitt notified them in an April 12 letter that the administration will suspend the November 2018 compliance deadline and ask a federal court to pause litigation against the rule while the administration figures out which sections it wants to rewrite.

By the Numbers

100 percent: Water allocation to Central Valley Project farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. To encourage use of surface water instead of groundwater, the bureau is restricting the amount of water that can be banked in San Luis Reservoir. (Bureau of Reclamation)

6.3 million gallons per day: Water that M5 Midstream, a Houston-based energy company, wants to withdraw from Toledo Bend, a reservoir on the Louisiana-Texas border, for use in natural gas development. The water would be withdrawn daily in the first month to fill an impoundment, which would be refilled as needed. (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission)

News Briefs

EPA Evaluates Regulations for Repeal
As required by law, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is seeking public comments on a presidential order to repeal or modify existing regulations. President Trump issued the order on February 24 to identify regulations that are “outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective.”

Has Trump Called Nebraska About Keystone XL?
The Nebraska governor’s office did not respond to the question.

The background: On March 24, when he approved a federal permit to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to cross into the United States, President Trump learned that the project still faces hurdles to construction. For one, TransCanada, the developer, needs Nebraska to approve a route through that state.

Trump said he would discuss the matter with Gov. Pete Ricketts. “I’ll call him today,” Trump said.

Has he called? Taylor Gage, the governor’s communications director, has not returned Circle of Blue’s email, phone, and cell phone messages.

Other obstacles are in the pipeline’s path, too. This Congressional Research Service report lays them out: Army Corps approvals to cross streams, oil prices, and competing pipelines.

Zinke Meetings
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke met with Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe officials for the latest talk in a series of discussions on keeping open Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal-fired power plant in the American West. The Arizona Republic reports that Zinke offered no specific proposal. The plant’s four non-federal owners indicated earlier this year that they will shut down the facility by 2019.

Zinke also met with California Gov. Jerry Brown. They discussed water infrastructure, but the Interior press office did not respond to a request for more details.

Reducing the Size of the Federal Government
Following Trump’s March 13 order, the director of the Office of Management and Budget sent federal agency heads a memo to guide the administration’s “reorganization” of the federal government.

The administration wants to reduce the number of federal employees and the cost of running federal programs. The OMB memo says that the president’s bare-bones budget should be a guiding star for long-term planning.

“The president of the United States has asked all of us in the executive branch to start from scratch, a literal blank piece of paper, and say, if you’re going to rebuild the executive branch, what would it look like,” said Mick Mulvaney, OMB director, who called the reorganization “the biggest story that nobody is talking about.” Mulvaney acknowledged that the administration will need the help of Congress to pull of the restructuring.

A draft of the each agency’s “reform plan” is due to the OMB by June 30.

The administration also wants public input. Send the White House your suggestions on the proposed cuts via this web page.

Studies and Reports

Needed: Better Fish Consumption Warnings
The EPA needs to write fish consumption health warnings that at-risk people will read and can understand, according to an inspector general’s report. The report found that less than half of states and no tribes have evaluated the effectiveness of their warnings.

The EPA also needs to update its risk analysis for people who ingest methylmercury from contaminated fish, the inspector general found. The agency agreed with both recommendations.

USGS Aquifer Reports
Three reports on important aquifers:

  • An increase in groundwater pumping in the Snake Valley, shared by Nevada and Utah will decrease or eliminate the flow of springs that are habitat for endangered species, according to a USGS hydrological model. The valley is an area of intense interest. A Las Vegas water district had hoped to export groundwater from the valley to Sin City, some 300 miles to the south, but ran into administrative roadblocks. Governors of the two states discussed what would have been the first interstate compact to share groundwater, but Utah’s governor, under pressure from opponents worried about a bad deal, announced in 2013 that he would not sign the agreement.
  • USGS sampling indicates that water levels in the Eastern Snake River Plain aquifer dropped to historic lows during the 2011 to 2015 study period. Chemical concentrations, however, generally improved.
  • The USGS completed a groundwater flow model for the Little Plover River, a waterway in central Wisconsin that is hotly contested because of the rise of high-capacity irrigation wells. Farmers have been accused of pumping so much groundwater that streams and lakes in the region are drying up. The model can help forecast the effects of pumping and identify sensitive areas. Read more about the Central Sands groundwater controversy from Circle of Blue.

On the Radar

Boundary Waters Mining Ban
The U.S. Forest Service is allowing public comments until August 11 on the scope of an environmental review to remove more than 234,000 acres in Minnesota from mining activity. The land is in Superior National Forest, near Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Lead-free Pipes Comment Period
The EPA extended the public comment period until May 17 for a proposed rule on the use of lead-free pipes for drinking water. The rule requires certification and labeling of lead-free plumbing products.

Long-term Changes in U.S. Water Quality
A U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist will lead a webinar on June 8 about water pollution trends in the United States. The survey just published an interactive map showing four decades of water pollution data. Registration for the webinar is free and open to the public.

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.