Federal Water Tap, December 4: House Votes to Reopen Minnesota National Forest to Mining

The Rundown

The House passes a bill to reopen a national forest in Minnesota to mining. The EPA decides not to issue stronger financial rules for hardrock mining. A big Arizona coal-fired power plant gets another two years of life. The Army Corps recommends permitting changes to speed up energy development and hosts a meeting on keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. A Senate committee holds a hearing on two Indian water rights settlements in the Colorado River basin. A binational commission lists nutrients, chemicals, sewage overflows, and invasive species as top threats to the Great Lakes. And lastly, early season snowpack is well below average in the Colorado and Rio Grande basins.

“It’s one of our greatest challenges in this country: lead in our drinking water. The lead that threatens the mental acuity of children. It’s a huge issue. I’m likely to go to Congress next year and probably going to announce a very strong initiative on a war on lead.” — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in an interview with the Washington Post. He gave no details about what a “war on lead” would entail.

By the Numbers

217: Water quality monitoring sites, out of some 36,000, that have been continuously sampled since the Clean Water Act. (U.S. Geological Survey)

News Briefs

Bill to Reopen National Forest in Minnesota to Mining
The House passed a bill that would reverse an Obama administration decision to close 235,000 acres of Superior National Forest, in Minnesota, to mining. The bill requires congressional approval for withdrawing land in the region from mining claims and it restores leases to Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Antofagasta, a Chilean mining company.

The land in question is south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In rejecting renewal of the leases, Obama administration officials argued that mining posed too great a risk of water contamination.

“I find unacceptable the inherent potential risk that development of a regionally-untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the [Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness] might cause serious and irreplaceable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area,” Thomas Tidwell, then the U.S. Forest Service chief, wrote in a December 2016 letter to support his determination.

EPA Rejects Mining Cleanup Financial Rules
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the agency will not issue financial rules for the hardrock mining industry that would have required companies to set aside money for environmental cleanup or certify that they had enough money in reserve. The Obama administration had pursued the rules at the end of its second term as a way of avoiding taxpayer-funded cleanups.

The agency now says that modern mining practices and existing state and federal rules are sufficient to minimize pollution risk and guarantee financial responsibility.

The rules would have applied to 221 large facilities nationwide, mostly gold, copper, and iron ore mines but also brine extractors and mineral processors.

WOTUS Language in Spending Bill
The House and Senate have included provisions in a fiscal year 2018 spending bill that would make it more difficult to challenge in court changes in the scope of the Clean Water Act, the Washington Post reports.

A Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman told the Post that “this provision would allow for the administration to rewrite this flawed rule without unnecessary delay.”

The EPA recently completed a series of consultations with various interest groups and the public. The rule will determine which water bodies the Clean Water Act protects.

Navajo Generating Station Extension
The Bureau of Reclamation extended the operating lease until December 22, 2019, for Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in northern Arizona that draws water from the Colorado River and is one of the nation’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide.

The four utilities that own shares in the Navajo facility have said that the plant’s electricity is too expensive and plan to walk away after 2019. Reclamation’s extension allows for power to be generated for another two years. The plant will then be decommissioned — unless it is rescued by the Trump administration, a bailout that Navajo Nation officials have requested.

In context: Utilities Move to Break Arizona’s Coal-Water Link

Water Infrastructure Bill In the House
Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) introduced a bill to expand the lending authority of WIFIA, a relatively new federal loan program that provides up to 49 percent of a large water project’s cost. The bill could provide as much as $5 billion in loans for drinking water, sewer, and stormwater improvements, Mast says.

Earlier this year, 12 projects were selected to apply for loans in the first round of funding, which totaled some $2 billion.

Speaking of WIFIA, EPA staff will hold a webinar on December 6 to discuss the program’s rules.

Studies and Reports

Great Lakes Water Quality
A 2012 agreement galvanized action to clean up Great Lakes pollutants, but much more work is needed, according to a three-year assessment report. The biggest areas of concerns are nutrient pollution in the western basin of Lake Erie, chemical contaminants, and sewage overflows, as well as invasive species.

The report was prepared by the International Joint Commission, a body that oversees water agreements between Canada and the United States.

Army Corps Report on Removing Barriers to Energy Production
In response to President Trump’s March 2017 order that federal agencies review regulations for ways to increase energy production, the Army Corps of Engineers outlined changes to its general construction permits that could achieve that goal.

One significant change for speeding project approvals would be to remove the requirement that a project destroy no more than 300 feet of stream bed. The key indicator would instead be one-half acre of land disturbance.

General permits, which accounted for 94 percent of Army Corps permits in 2016, are issued for activities expected to have minimal environmental effect.

Snow Trends
The 10-day forecast shows warmer and drier conditions for much of the western United States, which will not help a snowpack that is already well below average in the Colorado and Rio Grande basins. Meanwhile, Southern California is under an extreme fire warning through Thursday.

On the Radar

Asian Carp Meeting
On December 5, the Army Corps will hold a public meeting to discuss a report on keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. The report suggested ways to modify the Brandon Road Lock, which acts as a conduit to the Mississippi River basin. Suggested modifications: using electric fences, distracting noises, and flushing water through the lock.

The meeting is being held in New Orleans, but it is open to the public via Facebook Live, Web conference, and teleconference. Click the link above for more details.

Indian Water Rights Settlements
The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs holds a hearing on December 6 to discuss two tribal water rights settlements: the Navajo Nation in Utah and the Hualapai in Arizona. Both settlements involve water from the Colorado River basin.

Congress and federal agencies have approved 36 Indian water rights settlements, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Hearing on EPA’s Mission
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will testify on December 7 before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Pruitt will discuss the EPA’s mission.

Columbia River Basin Dam Review
The three federal agencies that are preparing an environmental review of how dam operations in the Columbia River basin affect salmon will host a public meeting on December 7. The agencies will discuss comments they received from the public in the review’s first phase. The meeting is in Portland, Oregon, but will also be webcast.

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.