Federal Water Tap, July 31: Regulators Greenlight Florida Nuclear Plant Wastewater Injection

The Rundown

Nuclear regulators say that fears of groundwater contamination in South Florida are misplaced. The BLM moves to repeal a rule, already invalidated by a federal judge, that addresses well construction, handling of chemicals, and data reporting for fracked wells on public lands. The EPA, meanwhile, officially moved to revoke an Obama administration definition of the scope of the Clean Water Act. A House committee advances a bill to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act, while the House passes a Defense Department spending bill that includes funds to clean up groundwater polluted by firefighting chemicals. The Senate confirms a former California farm lobbyist as second in command at the Interior Department. A Senate subcommittee holds a hearing on drought and water security. A congressional report shows the decline of federal infrastructure spending. And lastly, the Trump administration officially proposes an infrastructure council.

“This funding is a necessary response to an ongoing environmental issue that is only going to get worse — and more expensive — for the department and the countless innocent communities impacted across the country.” — Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) speaking about $US 60 million in funding to address groundwater contamination near military bases from firefighting foams. The funds were inserted in a Defense Department spending bill that passed the House.

By the Numbers

53: Senators voting to confirm a former California farm lobbyist and Interior Department solicitor as second in command at the Interior Department. The “yes” votes for David Bernhardt, who has lobbied for Westlands Water District, a power player in the Central Valley, included four Democrats. (Senate)

News Briefs

BLM Fracking Rule Reversal
The 180s continue. The Bureau of Land Management moved to rescind an Obama administration rule that governed hydraulic fracturing on public lands managed by the federal government. The rule established guidelines for well construction, handling of the brine and fluids that flow out of a fracked well, and reporting the chemicals used in the process. The BLM now feels that the rule “unnecessarily burdens industry with compliance costs and information requirements that are duplicative of regulatory programs of many states and some tribes.”

The rule never went into effect, first being suspended by a federal judge then invalidated. Environmental groups are appealing that ruling. The BLM, however, told the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Tenth Circuit in a March filing that the rule “does not reflect” the priorities of this administration.

Public comments are being accepted through September 25.

WOTUS Repeal
Weeks after announcing it, the EPA and the Army Corps published a notice in the Federal Register that states their intent to repeal the Obama administration’s definition of which water bodies are regulated by the Clean Water Act.

Publication in the Federal Register initiates the public comment period, which runs through August 28. That is a quick turnaround for one of the most contentious federal environmental rules in recent memory.

The second step in the administration’s plan is to propose a new rule. The agencies have not yet done that.
Republicans, meanwhile, are targeting the rule on a second front. A section of the Defense Department spending bill (page 277, line 12) allows the administration to revoke the rule with no strings attached — strings being requirements for public consultation.

Florida Nuclear Plant Waste Injection OK’d
A Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing board ruled that underground waste disposal from a pair of proposed reactors near Miami will not harm drinking water resources.

Florida Power and Light Company is seeking approval for two additional reactors at the Turkey Point nuclear plant, in Homestead, Florida. Even with a license the company might not proceed with construction if the cost of construction is too high.

Two green groups — National Parks Conservation Association and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy — challenged the NRC’s environmental review, claiming that injecting wastewater from the cooling towers could pose a risk to groundwater, if the contaminants were to move upward into a zone. The wastewater will be injected to a depth of 3,000 feet. The Upper Floridan Aquifer, which stretches between depths of 1,010 feet and 1,450 feet, is classified as a potential drinking water source.

The board concluded that contaminants are unlikely to move upward and, if they do, their concentrations will be lower than EPA standards.

House Committee Passes Drinking Water Bill
The Energy and Commerce Committee advanced a bill that makes small adjustments to the Safe Drinking Water Act that will, perhaps, provide more money to communities, improve data reporting, and result in cleaner water.

The Drinking Water System Improvement Act, developed in bipartisan negotiations, includes a number of provisions. Among them:

  • A gradual increase in authorized contributions to an infrastructure loan fund, in total $US 8 billion over five years. But remember the dictum: authorization does not equal appropriation. Congress could still deliver less money during the annual budget process.
  • Expanding the uses of the loan fund to include “preconstruction activities” — the design and planning stage.
  • Extending the loan repayment period for poor communities to 40 years.
  • Requiring that utilities, in their annual water quality reports to customers, include additional information about violations and send electronic versions.
  • $US 5 million per year for a grant program to replace school drinking water fountains with lead in the plumbing.

“It’s a start for some needed improvements,” Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, wrote to Circle of Blue in an email, while also noting that the legislative path through the House and Senate, is still long.

Firefighting Chemicals and the Military
A couple news items in what will be a long-running story to deal with groundwater contamination near military bases because of firefighting foams.

The House passed a Defense Department spending bill that includes $US 60 million for the Air Force and Navy to clean up groundwater contaminated by the chemicals PFOA and PFOS, which were used in firefighting foams on military bases.

Air Force investigators, meanwhile, released a report that indicates that foams are the source of groundwater contamination near Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado.

Trump Orders Infrastructure Council
By executive order, President Trump established an advisory council that will produce a report on prioritizing, accelerating, and financing infrastructure projects. The council will have no more than 15 members, appointed by the president. Public interest groups had sued over the administration’s use of informal advisers on infrastructure matters.

Studies and Reports

Rise and Fall of Government Infrastructure Investment
A Congressional Research Service report tracks the ups and downs of local, state, and federal non-military infrastructure spending. Total government investment on structures — generally roads, bridges, water, and sewer systems but also some energy spending — peaked in the late 1930s at roughly 4.2 percent of GDP. In the current decade, total government investment has fallen to about 1.6 percent of GDP, most of which is state and local spending combined with federal grants.

On the Radar

Senate Water Security Hearing
Their House colleagues have adjourned until after Labor Day, but the Senate is still at work. An Environment and Public Works subcommittee meets on August 1 to discuss oversight of the Superfund program.

An Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee holds a hearing on August 2 on preparing for drought through improvements to infrastructure and management.

Global Waters Website
The U.S. Agency for International Development is promoting a new website as a platform for sharing ideas about water and sanitation successes and failures. The page is populated mostly by USAID resources, but the site is looking for contributions.

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.