Hurricanes Irma and Maria smack the U.S. Virgin Islands while Maria inundates Puerto Rico. A Defense Department spending bill includes a health study for those exposed to firefighting chemicals in drinking water. The EPA schedules two hearings in Alaska on reopening the coveted Pebble copper deposit for mining. An inspector general report calls out the EPA’s misallocation of Superfund staff. A Senate committee postpones a confirmation hearing for EPA appointees, including the person nominated to head the Office of Water. The EPA considers reorganizing its Environmental Justice Office. And lastly, the EPA considers research on an emergency water system that pulls water from air.
“The affected communities in New Hampshire have been fighting tirelessly for answers about the risks from exposure to perfluorinated chemicals in their drinking water. They deserve answers, and this measure will help do just that. Going forward, I’ll work to ensure that this national study pays particular attention to the health impacts on Seacoast residents so we can give peace of mind to New Hampshire families who have been impacted by these contaminants.” — Statement from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) on the inclusion of a health study in the Defense spending authorization bill that the Senate passed on September 18. The nationwide study would look at the health effects of perfluorinated compounds in drinking water and be led by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Perfluorinated compounds are used in firefighting foams, nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, and more. Contamination in New Hampshire has been linked to an Air Force base, a plastics manufacturer, and fire stations.
By the Numbers
37.9 inches: Rainfall registered in the 48 hours ending Thursday afternoon at a gauge in Puerto Rico’s Caguas municipality. Hurricane Maria ripped through the U.S. territory, dumping 14 or more inches of rain across much of the island. (National Weather Service)
15: Percent of the country in which groundwater withdrawals are greater than the recharge rate. The figure comes from a new estimate of the amount of water in the Lower 48 that soaks into the ground, runs off into streams, is consumed by plants, or evaporates. (U.S. Geological Survey)
Hurricanes Cripple Island Water Systems
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on September 23 authorized the Defense Department and FEMA to install emergency drinking water units in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where two hurricanes have knocked out water and electric service. The EPA said that the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority is “not yet fully able” to provide treated water in affected areas.
The EPA, however, is basing that statement on what appears to be an educated guess. It said in the emergency authorization that because of trouble with communication systems it was “impractical” to consult with island authorities to confirm any storm-related troubles.
Updates posted on VIWAPA’s website indicate that water service is available in parts of the three main islands.
Army Corps Inspects Risky Puerto Rico Dam
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent an inspection team over the weekend to the Guajataca Dam where an emergency spillway to dump excess water was eroding. No dam failure, as of Sunday, is “imminent,” according to FEMA.
Studies and Reports
In Case of Emergency: Tap the Air
When hurricanes, tornadoes, and other powerful events knock out the piped water distribution system, agencies must rely on backup water sources. Generally, this takes the form of bottles. But there are alternatives.
The EPA is interested in a research partnership to study “atmospheric water generators” for use in emergencies. In essence, these contraptions work like big dehumidifiers that pull moisture out of the air.
Letters of interest are due September 30. See the above link for more information.
Army Corps Needs Better Pricing Data
The Government Accountability Office, according to an assessment, says that the Army Corps ought to keep better records of the prices that cities pay to store water in Army Corps reservoirs. Pricing information in the corps’ database is “neither complete nor accurate,” according to the report. The Army Corps has entered into roughly 340 storage agreements.
The EPA is allowing Superfund cleanups to lag because of a mismatch between staff assignments and projects that require work, according to an inspector general’s report. Some regional offices have either slowed down or stopped cleanup work because of inadequate staff.
EPA officials requested the evaluation. Though the request came during the Obama administration, the findings are useful for Administrator Scott Pruitt’s goal of speeding up Superfund cleanups. The EPA agreed with all recommendations that the inspector general proposed.
On the Radar
Confirmation Hearing Postponed
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works postponed a September 20 confirmation hearing for four EPA assistant administrators, including the Wisconsin lawyer nominated to lead the Office of Water. The hearing has not been rescheduled.
Public Hearings Scheduled for Pebble Mine Determination
The EPA will hold two hearings in Alaska to gather public comments on its proposal to reopen the Pebble deposit for mining. The Pebble deposit, rich in copper and gold, is upstream of Bristol Bay, one of the world’s great salmon fisheries. The Obama administration withdrew the area from mining development in 2014.
Administrator Scott Pruitt ordered the EPA to revoke the mining ban earlier this year. He did so “within hours” of a meeting, on May 1, with the CEO of the mining company that seeks to develop Pebble, according to emails obtained by CNN.
The hearings are October 11 in Dillingham and October 12 in Iliamna. Written public comments are being accepted through October 17 and should be submitted at www.regulations.gov referencing docket number EPA-R10-OW-2017-0369.
Water Infrastructure Hearing
On September 26, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee invites mayors, utility directors, and analysts to discuss the state of the nation’s water systems. Those testifying include the mayor of Hallandale Beach, Florida; the executive director of Chicago’s wastewater utility; the CEO of Aqua America, a publicly traded water company; and others.
EPA to Move Environmental Justice Office
The agency plans to shift the Environmental Justice Office from the Office of Enforcement Compliance Assurance to the Office of Policy. Agency officials will hold a call on September 26th at 3:30 p.m. Eastern to discuss the move. The dial-in number is 844-567-8594.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton