Federal Water Tap, May 15: EPA Bristol Bay Settlement Reopens Mine Permitting Process

The Rundown

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees to reconsider a copper mine in an Alaska watershed that feeds one of the world’s most productive salmon habitats. U.S. spy chief warns of water security threats in annual report to Congress. The Air Force provides bottled water to homes in Washington state whose wells were contaminated by firefighting chemicals used at the base. President Trump signs an executive order to prepare federal agencies for cyberattack. U.S. Chemical Safety Board revises report on West Virginia chemical spill that shut down water for 300,000 in 2014 but makes no new recommendations. Oil company is found guilty of using chemicals to disguise illegal discharges into the Gulf of Mexico. USGS researchers analyze more than 6,000 spills from horizontal oil and gas wells over 10 years. Two House committees hold hearings to discuss legislation related to water planning and funding.

“The agreement will not guarantee or prejudge a particular outcome, but will provide Pebble a fair process for their permit application and help steer EPA away from costly and time-consuming litigation. We are committed to listening to all voices as this process unfolds.” — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announcing a settlement in a lawsuit over a proposed mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed.

By the Numbers

6,622: Reported spills from horizontal oil and natural gas wells from 2005 to 2014 in four states: Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania. Most spills, which largely ranged from 100 liters to 10,000 liters, involved drilling waste, oil, or hydraulic fracturing chemicals. (U.S. Geological Survey)

$US 23.6 million: Funding for water reuse and recycling projects in the American West. Nearly 90 percent of the funds will go to six projects that are in the design or construction phase. (Bureau of Reclamation)

$US 22.6 billion: Funding for drinking water infrastructure in a bill introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ)

News Briefs

Bristol Bay
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency settled a lawsuit brought in 2014 by the partnership that hopes to develop a large open-pit copper mine in a watershed that feeds one of the world’s most productive salmon habitats.

Pebble Limited Partnership sued because the agency, in a rare move, began a regulatory proceeding to block the mine before its owners had even applied for a construction permit. Under the agreement announced on May 12, Pebble Limited Partnership will drop its lawsuit and the EPA will withdraw its preliminary decision to block the mine. Pebble can now apply for a dredging permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Though the settlement puts Pebble mine back in play, there is a row of significant hurdles. Pebble Limited Partnership, a small outfit, must find a new partner for such a large development. Mining giant Rio Tinto cut ties with Pebble in 2014. The mine must also apply for an Army Corps permit and go through an environmental review, which, combined, will take years. The EPA will wait 48 months to make a recommendation whether to develop the mine, so long as Pebble files its permit within 30 months.

Perfluorinated Chemicals in Wells Near Air Force Base
Seventeen of 23 domestic wells tested near Fairchild Air Force Base, outside Spokane, Washington, tested higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory limit for PFOA and PFOS, two chemicals used in firefighting foam. The Air Force is supplying those homes with bottled water until the Defense Department figures out what alternatives the government will pay for.

A national study of groundwater contamination linked to firefighting foams was part of the 2017 budget deal.

Internet Vigilance
President Trump signed a long-awaited order on protecting federal agencies and critical infrastructure from cyberattack. There are 16 sectors defined as critical, including energy, transportation, water, dams, communications, and others.

The order encourages agencies to share information about threats and vulnerabilities. It also mandates a stack of reports on risk and preparedness: botnet attacks, an attack on electrical grids, deterring attacks, international cooperation, and budget priorities.

In context: The water sector prepares for cyberattacks.

Water Supplies Highlighted in Arctic Council Declaration
At a government ministers’ meeting on the Arctic, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed the Fairbanks Declaration, which indirectly endorses government action on climate change, including support of the Paris Agreement.

One of the declaration’s 46 provisions adopts the recommendations of the Snow, Water, Ice, and Permafrost in the Artic report, an assessment conducted by the Arctic Council’s scientific working group. The report recommends that the council’s eight member countries lead a global effort to implement the Paris Agreement and to help Arctic communities adapt to new climate conditions.

Studies and Reports

Water Security Noted in Threat Report
Tensions in the Nile River Basin over water could flare in 2017 when Ethiopia begins filing a large reservoir on the river’s main branch, according to an annual national security report from the nation’s spy agencies.

“The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction of the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile is likely to intensify because Ethiopia plans to begin filling the reservoir in 2017,” according to the written testimony of Dan Coats, director of national intelligence.

Initiated in 20006, the annual report analyzes global threats to national security. Water and environmental risks were first mentioned and came to prominence during the Obama administration. This initial report from the Trump administration notes that environmental crises have led to an increasing number of refugees and people uprooted within their countries.

Chemical Investigators Revise West Virginia Spill Report
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board released an amended version of a report on a chemical spill in 2014 into West Virginia’s Elk River that shut down water supplies for some 300,000 people in the state capital.

The initial report, from September 2016, was criticized as flawed by citizens and technical experts alike. Citizens wanted more information about the long-term health effects and the chemicals that were released, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

The updated report increased the estimated amount of chemicals spilled from 10,000 gallons to 11,000 gallons and it provides more detail on the chemicals in the spilled mixture. No additional or revised recommendations for water system operators or the chemical company, however, were included.

Clean Water Act Violations in the Gulf of Mexico
The Interior Department’s inspector general found that an offshore oil operator used chemicals to conceal oil discharges into the Gulf of Mexico, in violation of the Clean Water Act. The company that sold the chemicals, knowing how they would be used, was fined $US 1 million. The offshore operator had already gone bankrupt.

On the Radar

Water Planning Hearing
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discusses “integrated planning” at a May 18 hearing. Integrated planning means that the EPA can work with cities to schedule the most beneficial water quality projects first when addressing Clean Water Act compliance for sewer overflows and stormwater. The EPA adopted the policy for consent decrees in 2012 but lawmakers now want to codify it into law so that communities can implement plans in their regular clean-water permits.

Drinking Water Hearing
The House Energy and Commerce Committee talks about drinking water funding during a May 19 hearing.

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.