Federal Water Tap, October 16: EPA Approves Cleanup Plan for Flooded Houston Superfund Site

The Rundown

The $115 million plan involves excavating sediment contaminated by dioxin, a move with broad support but opposed by at least one of the companies that would pay for the cleanup. The House passes a $36.5 billion hurricane, fire, and flood aid package. The EPA warns Puerto Ricans not to drink water from a well at a Superfund site. The U.S. Supreme Court hears a Clean Water Act case while announcing that it will hold oral arguments for two interstate water lawsuits. Trump picks a former Texas regulator to lead the Council on Environmental Quality. A Senate committee votes on four EPA nominees, including the head of the Office of Water. And lastly, we don’t really know how much water U.S. power plants withdraw.

“This is the most important single decision the United States Environmental Protection Agency has ever made with respect to Houston-Harris county. When the work is done it will literally liberate the people here and in the Galveston Bay.” — Terence O’Rourke, special assistant at the Harris County Attorney’s Office, referring to the EPA’s cleanup plan for the San Jacinto River waste pits, a Superfund site.

By the Numbers

$36.5 billion: Hurricane, flood, and fire aid package that passed the House. (House of Representatives)

News Briefs

Houston Superfund Site Cleanup
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized a $115 million cleanup plan for one of the Houston-area Superfund sites that was flooded in August during Hurricane Harvey.

The EPA’s preferred cleanup of the San Jacinto River waste pits entails the excavation and removal of soils contaminated with dioxin, a cancer-causing chemical that lasts in the environment for centuries. Small, temporary dams will be build to redirect the river, which inundates a portion of the site, and dry out the work area. Most public comments supported this course of action.

The companies responsible for the cleanup costs are McGinnes Industrial Maintenance and International Paper. The EPA will now begin negotiating a settlement with them, which will take a minimum of two months but probably longer. The Houston Chronicle reports that McGinnes will oppose excavation and removal of the sediment. It prefers dredging, a cheaper option. If no agreement can be reached, the EPA could take legal action.

The pits were a waste dump for a paper mill during the 1960s. Because of large-scale groundwater pumping at the time, land in the area sank and partially submerged the pits in the San Jacinto River.

Puerto Rico Superfund Site an Emergency Drinking Water Source
The EPA warned Puerto Ricans not to drink water from wells at Superfund sites.

CNN reporters in Puerto Rico confirmed that a water utility was distributing water from a well at Dorado, a site added to the Superfund list in September 2016 because of the presence of chemical solvents in groundwater. Contaminant levels in the well water being distributed last week were not known.

Nearly four weeks after the island was pummel by Hurricane Maria, three in 10 Puerto Ricans still are not connected to tap water service.

Trump Nominates Chair of Council on Environmental Quality
Trump picked Kathleen Hartnett White of Texas to lead the White House council that guides the implementation of the nation’s environmental laws.

A senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a former director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Hartnett White has criticized policies that seek to reduce fossil fuel use. “The scale, risk, and damage of the decarbonizing project institutionalized in the most affluent nations of the world are without precedent in human history,” she wrote in 2016.

Supreme Court Hears WOTUS Argument
Which federal court, district or appeals, should have jurisdiction over challenges to the Waters of the United States rule, the Obama-era edict that defines which water bodies are subject to Clean Water Act protections? That was the question at an October 11 Supreme Court hearing. The rule itself has been stayed since 2015, and the nine justices will decide which court takes up the case.

Water Affordability and Planning Bill Passes Senate
The Senate approved the Water Infrastructure Flexibility Act, a bill to allow utilities to incorporate green infrastructure in their pollution-control plans and to make the most cost-effective pollution control investments first.

The bill also requires the EPA to revise, within 12 months after receiving a National Academy of Public Administration study, its affordability guidance. The NAPA study, ordered by Congress last year, is due by the end of this month.

In context: When It Comes to Water Service How Expensive Is Too Expensive?

Studies and Reports

We Don’t Really Know How Much Water Power Plants Withdraw
Every five years the U.S. Geological Survey publishes a report on U.S. water withdrawals from rivers, lakes, and aquifers, and power plants withdraw more water than any sector.

But a U.S. Geological Survey study questions the accuracy of the numbers, which are self-reported by the power plants. The study compared three sets of numbers: the USGS compilation, an Energy Information Administration database, which is also self-reported, and a statistical model developed by Tim Diehl and other USGS scientists for estimating power plant water withdrawals.

“There are wildly disparate numbers in some cases,” Diehl, a report co-author, told Circle of Blue. Water withdrawal figures for an individual plant typically vary by a factor of two between the datasets, Diehl said. Of the 754 power plants included in all three datasets, reported water withdrawals for one in six were off by a factor of 10.

Diehl is not sure why such large discrepancies exist. It could be that two different people at the same plant reported numbers to different agencies using different methods.

Accurate numbers are important, he said. The American West runs on a water economy that accounts for every drop of water while power plant water intakes in the eastern United States kill fish and aquatic life, which is correlated with water withdrawals.

On the Radar

Senate Committee Votes on EPA Nominees
On October 18, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will vote on the nominations of four EPA officials, including David Ross, the Wisconsin lawyer tapped to head the Office of Water.

Water Supply Bill Being Developed in Senate
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, led by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), is working on a bill to address groundwater recharge and water infrastructure. A closed discussion last week followed a committee hearing in August.

Interstate Water Cases in the Supreme Court
The nine justices agreed to hear arguments in two disputes over the sharing of interstate rivers: Florida sued Georgia over withdrawals from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint watershed while Texas argues that groundwater pumping in New Mexico is depleting its share of the Rio Grande.

Dates for oral arguments have not been set. Both cases have already been referred to legal experts, who held fact-finding hearings and made recommendations to the court.

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.