Federal Water Tap, September 18: EPA Reviews Water Pollution Rules for Fossil Fuel Power Plants

The Rundown

The EPA postpones two power plant water pollution rules and suspends enforcement of water pollution rules for power plants in Florida while they restore electricity after Hurricane Irma. The EPA also reconsiders Obama-era rules on coal waste disposal. The House passes a budget package that includes a six percent cut to the EPA. Federal scientists find that barges disable electric fish barriers in Chicago-area canals meant to keep out invasive species. A Senate committee holds a hearing this week on EPA nominees. The signing date for a Colorado River deal with Mexico approaches. And lastly, the Census Bureau releases new data on the number of U.S. houses that do not have “complete plumbing facilities.”

“The committee is aware that several Department of Defense installations and facilities are experiencing recurrent flooding events and encroachment from sea level rise. These events have the potential to adversely impact military operations, training, and readiness.” — Section from the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee’s report on the Defense Department spending bill, which passed the House last week.

By the Numbers

443,000: Occupied houses in the United States in 2016 that did not have “complete plumbing facilities,” which is defined as having hot and cold piped water, a flush toilet, and a bathtub or shower. The absence of any one of those means the house’s plumbing is incomplete. The data, from the annual American Community Survey, was released last week. The number of houses without complete plumbing has held steady in the last five years. (U.S. Census Bureau)

5.3 feet: Highest tide recorded during Hurricane Irma, on the St. John’s River near Jacksonville, Florida. The number represents feet above the average high tide and includes storm surge and rainfall runoff. Harvey, by comparison, pushed coastal waters to 10 feet above the high tide line near Houston. (NOAA)

11: Provisions of an Obama-era coal waste rule that the EPA will reconsider after a petition from an electric power utility group. (EPA)

90: Percent of the 50,000 structures on St. John and St. Thomas that were damaged in Hurricane Irma. (FEMA)

News Briefs

EPA Postpones Power Plant Water Pollution Standards
Because it intends a rewrite, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is suspending for two years the date by which electric power plants have to comply with pollution rules. The rules require them to install equipment that reduces water pollution from fossil fuel waste.

The suspended compliance dates apply to two forms of waste. One is the slurry from scrubbing sulfur dioxide out of the gas produced by burning coal and natural gas. The other waste stream is the ash that remains after coal is burned.

Earlier this year business groups asked the EPA to reevalute parts of the Obama administration directive. The EPA will do so for the wastes mentioned above, but not for fly ash or mercury flue gas.

House Passes Budget Bill
The House approved a budget bill that consolidated spending plans for 12 individual appropriations bills. Included in the package are the budgets for Interior, EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, and other agencies involved in water work.

A few items stand out: The EPA budget is cut by $528 million — more than six percent — to the same nominal level as at the end of the Bush administration.

It includes a provision that allows the EPA and the Army Corps to revoke the Waters of the United States rule, which the Obama administration adopted to define which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act. The budget committee, acknowledging that nearly one-quarter of homes use septic systems or decentralized systems to filter household wastewater, urged the EPA to focus on these systems.

In context: America’s failing septic system infrastructure.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is kept is $300 million, but the Chesapeake Bay program is cut by $13 million.

The U.S. Geological Survey budget for research and investigations is cut by $46 million, or more than four percent.

Florida Pollution Exemption
The EPA granted a pollution waiver to Florida electric utilities as they restore electricity to millions of people who lost power in the wake of Hurricane Irma. The waiver states that the EPA, for two weeks, will not enforce water pollution discharges that exceed permitted levels.

Utilities must still report discharges and emissions. But they will not be penalized for them.

The exemption expires at 11:59 p.m. EDT on September 26.

Studies and Reports

CEQ Announces What It Will Do To Quicken Infrastructure Permitting
Responding to an August 2017 executive order, the Council on Environmental Quality announced four initial steps it will take to speed up the review of infrastructure projects. Three of the four are announcements of intent: to revise guidance and write the rules for having a single agency in charge of environmental reviews. And in true D.C. fashion, one step is to convene a working group to make further recommendations.

CEQ is the White House office in charge of overseeing the environmental review process.

What Prevents Underwater Electric Currents from Closing the Aquatic Door to the Great Lakes?
Barges, as it happens.

The electric barriers on the Chicago area canal system are designed to keep fish from moving between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Basin. The great fear is that Asian carp, voracious feeders that they are, will wreak environmental havoc if they move into the Great Lakes.

Barges move across the barriers every day. Federal scientists wanted to know what effect they had on the electric current. According to a study published in early September, quite a lot. The barges’ wake disrupted the electric current and allowed fish to pass through the canal in a majority of trials. The fish always traversed the barriers in the opposite direction that the barge was traveling.

On the Radar

Senate Committee Hearing for EPA Nominees
On September 20, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will interrogate nominees for top EPA positions, including David Ross to be the head of the Office of Water. Ross is the director of the environmental protection unit of the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

EPA Wants Input on Perchlorate Peer Reviewers
The EPA is developing a national drinking water standard for perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel. A contractor selected 12 experts as potential reviewers of the EPA’s scientific work. You can comment on the peer reviewer list until October 6 by sending an email to perchlorate@versar.com.

Colorado River Deal with Mexico Approaches
September 26. That’s the date that California water officials say that the United States and Mexico will sign an updated Colorado River agreement, the Desert Sun reports. The latest “minute” to the 1944 binational river treaty extends a set of operating instructions that govern the storage of water in Lake Mead, payments for more efficient water use, and the sharing of drought shortages. The current agreement expires at the end of the year.

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.