Federal Water Tap, February 26: EPA Discards Stronger Financial Rules for Hardrock Mining

The Rundown

Existing regulations and modern mining techniques reduce the risk of environmental cleanups, the EPA argues in deciding not to strengthen financial accountability rules. The Bureau of Reclamation announces a low initial water supply for some Central Valley Project farms. The EPA begins discussing its lead-reduction initiative, but little information about the meeting is available. House members introduce water bills to help rural communities. U.S. attorneys investigate two chemical giants’ role in a North Carolina water contamination case. And lastly, a government watchdog recommends that the EPA track water utility preparations for cyberattacks.

“Given what we know today, and what we see in the forecast, we must be very conservative with our allocation. If this lack of rain and snow continues, we could very well be right back in drought operations. A situation like this really underscores the need for more storage in California.” — David Murillo, director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific Region, discussing the low water supply forecast for the federal Central Valley Project, which provides water for farms and cities. Storage is a hot topic in California, where the state water commission is deciding how to spend $2.7 billion in state funds on storage projects.

By the Numbers

20 percent: Initial water allocation for farm districts south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta that are served by the federal Central Valley Project. California is preparing for another dry year as snow levels in the Sierra Nevada are among the lowest on record. If late-season snows materialize, water allocations can be increased. (Bureau of Reclamation)

News Briefs

EPA Decides Against Tougher Financial Liability Rules for Hardrock Mining
Reversing an Obama administration proposal that sought to reduce the need for taxpayer-funded cleanups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided not to impose tougher financial rules on hardrock mining companies.

The rules would have required 221 mines and related facilities to set aside more money for environmental liabilities related to spills and contamination. The EPA argues that the additional financial assurance is unnecessary because existing state and federal rules already minimize the risk of sites ending up on the Superfund list.

The proposal would have increased costs for mining companies, largely affecting those that produce gold, copper, iron, phosphate, and uranium.

Federal Investigators Probe North Carolina Chemical Contamination
Two chemical giants at the center of a water pollution controversy in North Carolina indicated in financial filings that they have been served with subpoenas from federal grand juries, the Wilmington Star News reports.

DuPont and Chemours, which spun off from DuPont in 2015, made the disclosures in annual reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The EPA and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality are also investigating the release of the perfluorinated chemical GenX into the Cape Fear River watershed from Chemours’ production facility in Fayetteville.

Few Details on Lead Meeting
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt convened a federal task force on February 15 to discuss the administration’s strategy to reduce lead exposure in children, but there is little indication of what happened at the meeting.

Greenwire reports that the meeting of the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children, established in 1997, was unusual in that Cabinet officials and political appointees attended instead of the career employees who typically work on lead issues.

Bloomberg BNA talked with an EPA attorney who said that the lead initiative’s goal will largely be to coordinate federal and state actions.

Government Water for Rural Montana
Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) introduced a bill to authorize two more rural water supply projects, even though projects already authorized are decades behind schedule.

The new projects would supply about 22,500 Montana residents. Communities in other states might be miffed at new proposals. Existing rural water projects in the upper Midwest, namely the Lewis and Clark project, authorized by Congress in 2000, have languished for years with minimal federal appropriations and are still not completed.

Water Aid for Rural Communities
Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) introduced a bill that would authorize $15 million in grants per year to provide technical assistance to sewage treatment plants serving fewer than 10,000 customers, and $10 million per year to plants that serve between 10,000 and 75,000 people.

Studies and Reports

Water Sector Cybersecurity
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not track the number of water utilities that have adopted industry standards to guard their systems against hackers, the Government Accountability Office reports. The GAO recommends that the agency work with utility industry partners to assess implementation.

In context: Water Sector Prepares for Cyberattacks

Dry Rivers
Hydrological droughts are most common in the Mountain West and rarest in the Ohio River basin and Mississippi delta, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report that analyzed data from 1951 to 2014. The researchers defined hydrological drought as three or more consecutive months in which stream flows were in the lowest quintile. Drought ended when flows rose higher than the lowest quintile for three months in a row.

On the Radar

Puerto Rico Hearing
On February 28, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will discuss the slow restoration of Puerto Rico’s electric grid.

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.