Federal Water Tap, August 6: Pipeline Industry Cheers Senate Bill to Limit Clean Water Act Permitting
Republican senators introduce a bill to restrict use of state water quality permitting under the Clean Water Act. The White House chooses a science adviser. Congress passes a four-month extension of the National Flood Insurance Program and approves a new Wild and Scenic River designation in Montana. EPA finalizes a $200 million groundwater and soil cleanup plan for part of the Hanford nuclear site, located next to the Columbia River. State Department issues an environmental analysis of a new Keystone XL route through Nebraska. USGS researchers analyze groundwater salinity near California oil fields. And lastly, the U.S. Supreme Court allows a children’s climate lawsuit against the U.S. government to proceed to trial.
“California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!” — President Trump tweeting incorrectly on August 5 that water policy in California is obstructing firefighting.
By the Numbers
$200 million: Soil and groundwater cleanup plan for two areas of the Hanford site, a former plutonium production facility near the Columbia River in Washington state. Funds for scrubbing groundwater of hexavalent chromium, strontium, and nitrate will come from the Department of Energy’s budget. (EPA — warning: large file, 50MB)
Senate Clean Water Act Bill Would Restrict State Authority
Four Republican senators introduced legislation to amend the Clean Water Act to limit the ability of states to withhold water quality permits. It is the latest volley in the ongoing struggle to define the relationship between state and federal power in environmental law.
Section 401 of the Clean Water Act requires projects that seek federal authorization and discharge pollutants into water bodies to get state-issued permits. The permits certify that the project will not violate state water quality standards. Discharge has been broadly interpreted to include damage to aquatic habitat and filling of reservoirs. In past decades, the hydropower industry objected to use of Section 401 to block or impose conditions on dam construction.
Lately states have used Section 401 to veto oil and gas pipelines. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, for example, denied a water quality permit in 2016 for the Constitution natural gas pipeline. On April 30, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the company’s petition to review the state’s decision.
Robin Rorick of the American Petroleum Institute argues that politicians have “abused” Section 401 to block oil and gas pipelines. API and the Interstate Natural Gas Association support the proposed legislation.
Senators who sponsored the bill are John Barrasso of Wyoming, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Steve Daines of Montana, and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.
White House Selects Science Adviser
After leaving the office vacant for more than 18 months, President Trump selected Kelvin Droegemeier, a University of Oklahoma meteorologist who specializes in violent storms, as his administration’s science adviser.
Droegemeier was appointed by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama to the National Science Board, a 25-member advisory body that consults with the White House and Congress on scientific issues. Here is his full CV.
Diane Souvaine, the National Science Board chair and a computer science professor at Tufts University, called Droegemeier “a top-notch, highly regarded scientist.”
Congress Extends — Again — National Flood Insurance Program
It’s another short-term reprieve for the federal program that provides flood insurance policies in risky areas.
Facing a July 31 deadline, Congress extended NFIP through hurricane season, until November 30.
This is the seventh short-term extension in the last year, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Defense Authorization Bill Heads to President’s Desk
Congress completed work on a Defense Department spending authorization bill that includes provisions on PFAS chemicals.
The bill authorizes $10 million per year for the next two years to continue an exposure assessment and health study. It orders the Defense Department to evaluate the feasibility of a national register for veterans who were exposed to PFAS while serving on military bases.
Wild and Scenic River Designation
President Trump signed a bill that protects a 13-mile stretch and a 7-mile stretch of East Rosebud Creek, part of the Yellowstone River watershed in western Montana.
Studies and Reports
State Department Takes Second Look at Keystone XL
A revised Keystone XL pipeline route through Nebraska will have negligible effects on groundwater and minor effects on streams and wetlands, according to a State Department draft environmental assessment.
The new route — which avoids areas that supply groundwater for municipal use — is 7 miles longer than what was analyzed in 2014 and includes one more pumping station. The new route shares certain segments with the old course, but deviates from it for a 162-mile section in central Nebraska. Two-thirds of that section is located on the same right-of-way as the existing Keystone pipeline.
Though it avoids groundwater protection areas, the route is within a mile of seven such areas. The assessment notes that spills at these locations would have the potential to affect drinking water.
The Trump administration granted the Keystone XL pipeline a permit in 2017.
Groundwater Salinity Near California Oil Fields
The U.S. Geological Survey mapped the saltiness of groundwater near 31 oil fields in central and southern California that were deemed a moderate or high risk of contaminating aquifers.
In general, salinity increased with depth, but there were significant variations both regionally and within fields.
The goal of the study is to categorize groundwater resources with TDS, a measure of salt content, lower than 10,000 milligrams per liter, which is considered the upper range of potential drinking water sources by the EPA.
On the Radar
U.S. Supreme Court Allows Climate Case to Proceed
The high court denied a Trump administration request to dismiss a landmark climate change lawsuit brought by 21 children.
The lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, argues that by not reducing carbon emissions, the U.S. government is impairing their right — and the right of future generations — to a livable planet. The Justice Department sought to throw out the case before it was even heard in federal district court.
Though getting onto the docket is a victory, winning the case will not be easy. Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center, says that the kids and their lawyers will have a “formidable challenge” in proving violations of constitutional and public trust law.
The case is scheduled to begin on October 29 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.
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.
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
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