Federal Water Tap, June 19: Pipeline Regulators Investigate Suspicious Diesel Fuel in Ohio Spill

The Rundown

Rover Pipeline LLC agreed not to use diesel in its drilling fluid, but that’s what Ohio regulators found. House members push back against Trump’s proposed EPA budget cuts. A Senate committee forwards a Yakima River watershed bill to the Senate. The potential range for Lake Erie’s annual summer algal bloom narrows. The USGS finds that irrigation in California’s San Joaquin Valley is pushing salts deeper into groundwater. Coming out of drought, California and Nevada face a higher-than-normal fire risk this summer. The EPA’s internal watchdog reports on the causes of the Gold King mine spill. Senate committees hold hearings on large watershed restoration and water infrastructure financing. And lastly, the Bureau of Reclamation considers whether to reintroduce salmon to the watershed upstream of Shasta Dam, in California.

“Enacting $US 54 billion in non-defense program cuts in one fiscal year is an untenable proposition. Proposed cuts of this magnitude put agencies and important tasks at risk.” — Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) at a House Appropriations hearing on June 15 on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2018 budget. Administrator Scott Pruitt testified that, even with President Trump’s proposed 31 percent cut, the agency would still be able to “fulfill [its] mission.” Committee members disagreed, with Calvert saying that they are “unlikely to entertain” many of the proposed cuts — to air quality programs, Great Lakes restoration, Superfund cleanups, and others.

By the Numbers

977,555 acres: Land enrolled in a federal conservation program that South Dakota’s senators want to open for emergency grazing and foraging during the state’s drought emergency. The senators made the request in a letter to the U.S. agriculture secretary. (Sen. John Thune)

July 14, 2017: Effective date of new rule to reduce the amount of mercury that dental offices send to sewage treatment plants. A sewage industry group reckons that dentists, who fill cavities using a mercury mixture, are the source of half of mercury at municipal treatment plants. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

News Briefs

FERC Investigates Rover Pipeline Drilling Spill
After state tests found diesel fuel in the waters near the site of a pipeline drilling fluid spill in northeastern Ohio, federal regulators will open an investigation into the source of the hydrocarbons.

The fuel should not have been in the fluid recipe. Rover Pipeline LLC’s permit application stated that the fluid would be composed of “nontoxic/nonhazardous bentonite clay and water,” according to a letter from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to company officials. The letter suggests that the presence of diesel, if it came from the fluid, is a violation of the company’s drilling permit for the natural gas pipeline.

The spill happened nearly two months ago. On April 27, while drilling beneath the Tuscarawas River, the company released 2 million gallons of fluid. Two weeks later, FERC suspended drilling at the river crossing. Rover’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, is no stranger to controversy; it built the Dakota Access pipeline.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which conducted tests on the fluid, says that the diesel does not present “an imminent threat” to human health or the environment, but federal regulators want to know the potential long-term consequences.

Yakima River Basin Bill Update
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee forwarded a Yakima River Basin to the Senate. The bill authorizes a slew of activities related to water supply, irrigation, and fisheries in the central Washington watershed: modifications to reservoirs, development of a water market, habitat restoration, and more.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), did not pass in the last session of Congress.

Superfund Changes
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, in a May 22 memo, took authority over the Superfund process by designating himself as the person in charge of cleanup actions expected to cost $US 50 million or more. That authority had rested in regional administrators and the head of the Office of Land and Emergency Management.

Pruitt also established a task force to offer recommendations on quickening the pace of cleanups and reducing costs.

Studies and Reports

California Irrigation Pushes Contaminants Deeper into Aquifer
Salts dissolved in groundwater are being found deeper underground in the west side of California’s San Joaquin Valley than they were 25 years ago and are approaching the zone used for public drinking water, according to a U.S Geological Survey study.

Farm irrigation is flushing the salts, including selenium, perchlorate, and strontium, deeper into the ground. Public supply wells in the Delta-Mendota study area reach depths between 150 feet and 600 feet. The study found that half of the groundwater used for public drinking water exceeded a state benchmark for total salts. (Here’s a four-page fact sheet that distills key points from the study.)

Because the area sees little rainfall, water and the salts it carries would move slowly downward. But widespread irrigation introduced a manmade accelerator, according to Miranda Fram, the study’s lead author.

“All the irrigation has increased the rate of recharge and things are moving faster,” Fram told Circle of Blue.

Gold King Mine Report to Congress
The EPA Office of Inspector General released a report, required by Congress, into the causes of the Gold King mine spill in August 2015, and the federal government’s response.

When the accident occurred, agency staff and contractors were investigating options for treating contaminated water from the mine. Waste had been flowing out of the mine since 2005 at 200 gallons per minute, roughly equal in 10 days to the 3 million gallons spilled that August day. The report has no additional recommendations for the agency.

Lake Erie Algal Bloom Forecast
The potential range of the summer algal bloom in the western basin of Lake Erie has narrowed, according to a weekly NOAA forecast. The bloom will be more severe than average but its ultimate size depends on how much phosphorous washes out of the basin in the next few weeks.

Fire Risk in California
The drought is gone but California and Nevada face high fire risk this summer, according to a climate outlook report from a consortium of federal and academic scientists. There will be a short-term “burst” of fire activity in grassy areas, they say. But the most significant area of fire risk, due to dead trees and plentiful grass, will be the Sierra Nevada foothills between 3,000 feet and 6,000 feet in elevation. Because of abundant moisture in the mountains, large fires may not start until late July or August.

On the Radar

New Salmon Habitat Above Shasta Dam?
The Bureau of Reclamation, in collaboration with federal, state, and local agencies, will evaluate whether Chinook salmon and steelhead can be reintroduced to the watershed above Shasta Dam, a federal structure on the Sacramento River in northern California. Fish cannot currently get past the 602-ft dam to spawn. Public comments on the scope of the evaluation are due by July 21.

Energy Committee Discuss Large Watershed Restoration
Several federal agencies will be represented at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on using partnerships in restoration of large watersheds. The hearing is June 20.

Water Infrastructure Financing
Also on June 20, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on water infrastructure financing. Witnesses had not been announced as of Sunday night.

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.