Federal Water Tap, March 13: EPA Environmental Justice Office Director Resigns

The Rundown

A 24-year veteran of the EPA environmental justice office steps down. The Bureau of Reclamation debates the use of treated wastewater in southern Arizona. A Pennsylvania representative asks Congress to fund a health study on chemical contamination from military installations in his district. The EPA needs to better prioritize the cleanup of leaking underground storage tanks on tribal lands, says the inspector general. Lots of water-related bills are introduced in Congress: legislation to speed up construction of a California reservoir; to expand a Wyoming reservoir’s storage capacity; and to prevent mining in the headwaters of Washington’s Methow River. The EPA will consider an aquifer pollution permit for a uranium mining project in South Dakota. The U.S. Geological Survey maps Central Valley groundwater pH. A joint Mexico-U.S. commission will investigate a sewage spill that occurred near Tijuana last month and spread across the border via the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Supreme Court justices will discuss a recommendation to rule in favor of Georgia in a river basin lawsuit. And lastly, it was the second-warmest February on record in the United States.

“We often forget that the choices we make on regulations affecting clean air, clean water and enforcement are interconnected with the lives of our vulnerable communities and tribal populations. Communities have shared with me over the past two decades how important the enforcement work at the agency is in protecting their often forgotten and overlooked communities. They feel that when done properly, enforcement plays a critical role in ensuring that all communities, especially those with environmental justice concerns are being protected from serious threats from chemical hazards and ensuring that their air, water, and land are safe. By ensuring that there is equal protection and enforcement in these communities, EPA plays a significant role in addressing unintended impacts and improving some of the public health disparities that often exist from exposure to pollution.” — Resignation letter from Mustafa Ali, who stepped down as leader of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice office after 24 years at the agency. In an interview with InsideClimate News, Ali said that he resigned because “my values and priorities seem to be different than our current leadership.”

By the Numbers

28,200 acre-feet: Amount of treated wastewater at stake in a debate between the Bureau of Reclamation and southern Arizona water agencies. A portion of the effluent is left in the Santa Cruz River, but Reclamation might need to take it all to pay for delivering water to other users. (Arizona Daily Star)

7.3 degrees Fahrenheit: Amount the average temperature last month in the lower 48 states exceeded the 20th century average. It was the second-warmest February on record, and 16 states marked record-high monthly average temperatures. (NOAA)

340,000 acres: National forest land in Washington’s Methow Valley that would be off limits to mining, according to legislation introduced by Washington’s senate delegation. It is one of several attempts to protect the Methow River headwaters. The Interior Department is currently reviewing a petition from the Obama administration’s U.S. Forest Service to withdraw those lands for a 20-year period. Only Congress can institute a permanent mining ban. (Sen. Maria Cantwell)

News Briefs

Congressman Requests Health Study, Groundwater Cleanup
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) asked the House committee responsible for the Defense Department budget to approve funding for a health study and to clean up contaminated groundwater wells. The study would examine the health effects of chemicals used in firefighting foam. The foam was used at three military installations in his eastern Pennsylvania district. The chemicals in question are perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs.

“A low-cost, commonsense study will go a long way in providing Americans critical information about the impact these unregulated chemicals may have on their health,” Fitzpatrick, a first-term congressman, told the committee.

PFCs, which persist in the environment and are also used in non-stick products, have polluted water supplies across the United States.

Sites Reservoir Bill
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) introduced a bill that establishes deadlines and timetables for the review, design, and construction of Sites Reservoir, a water storage facility proposed for northern California.

Wyoming Reservoir Storage Bill
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) introduced a bill to increase the amount of usable water in Wyoming’s Fontenelle Reservoir by a third, an increase of 85,000 acre-feet. The reservoir is in the Colorado River Basin.

The bill authorizes the Interior Department and the state of Wyoming to reinforce the lower face of the dam with rocks. Doing so prevents erosion and allows the reservoir to be drawn down farther than is currently permitted.

Steve Wolff of the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office told Circle of Blue that accessing to the additional water would not be for new uses; rather, it would supply existing users during drought or lower Colorado River Basin states in a compact call.

Wyoming would pay for construction. The bill failed to pass in the last session of Congress.

Studies and Reports

Leaking Storage Tanks in Indian Country
The EPA’s process for selecting leaking underground storage tanks for cleanup on tribal land does not prioritize the highest risk sites, according to an inspector general’s report. Underground tanks generally hold petroleum products such as gasoline and diesel fuel. Leaking tanks can pollute groundwater and streams.

The report found that the EPA has reduced the backlog of unaddressed leaking tanks, but 271 sites in Indian country still require cleanup. Average cleanup cost is $US 125,000 per site, according to the EPA. Heavily polluted sites can cost more than $US 1 million.

Aquifer Pollution Exemption
The EPA is considering two permit applications to allow a mining company to drill for uranium and dispose of treated waste fluids into an aquifer on the Wyoming—South Dakota border. The applications are under the agency’s underground injection control program. Public comments on the proposal are being accepted through May 19. To find documents related to the application, click the above link and scroll to the bottom of the page.

Central Valley Groundwater Quality Map
The U.S. Geological Survey published a map of the predicted pH of groundwater used for household and municipal supply. Groundwater quality is influenced by pH. The map shows predicted levels at depths of 30 meters and 100 meters.

CRS Reports
The Congressional Research Service published a report on water-sharing between Mexico and the United States and a summary of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

On the Radar

Florida v Georgia Lawsuit
U.S. Supreme Court justices will meet on March 17 to discuss a legal expert’s recommendation to rule in favor of Georgia in a watershed dispute. Florida sued Georgia seeking a cap on its neighbor’s water withdrawals from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which the two states share.

White House Budget Request
Leaked proposals indicated that the Trump administration will recommend stupendous cuts to environment and science agency budgets. Will they stick? The White House submits its budget proposal to Congress on March 16.

Tijuana Sewage Spill Investigation
The International Boundary and Water Commission, which oversees waters shared by Mexico and the United States, will investigate a sewage spill in Mexico that fouled the Tijuana River and coastal waters near San Diego. The report to identify the source of the spill, how much sewage was released, and the public notification process during such events is due by April 1.

Hydropower at Energy Hearing
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will hold a hearing on March 14 on America’s energy infrastructure. A representative from the National Hydropower Association will testify.

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.