Federal Water Tap, July 23: EPA Watchdog Criticizes Agency’s ‘Very Collegial’ Flint Response

The Rundown

EPA inspector general blames a cozy relationship between regulators in Flint crisis. EPA finalizes weaker coal waste rules designed to protect groundwater. USDA allocates $267 million for rural water infrastructure. The House sees a bevy of water bills. Army Corps analyzes plan for two northern Colorado dams. USGS ranks California’s oil and gas fields for potential for groundwater contamination. GAO issues two reports: it finds widespread neglect of lead-in-drinking-water testing at schools, and recommends setting targets to track Puget Sound restoration. Bureau of Reclamation watchdog questions spending by a California water district. A health research agency asks for comment on its study design for PFAS exposure assessments on military bases. The Department of Homeland Security hosts public briefings this week on Russian cyberattacks on critical infrastructure in the United States, including water and energy systems. And lastly, the federal flood insurance program is about to expire, in the middle of hurricane season.

“EPA needs to oversee the states, but we found that the partnership [in Michigan] was very collegial.” — Jayne Lilienfeld-Jones of the EPA Office of the Inspector General speaking with Circle of Blue about the office’s report criticizing the EPA response in Flint. The report singles out a close relationship between the EPA Region 5 office and state regulators.

In context: In Flint Water Crisis, EPA’s Friendly Relationship with State Regulators Delayed Use of Legal Authority

By the Numbers

57 percent: Share of school districts, in 2016 and 2017, that either did not test for lead in drinking water or did not know if they tested. Testing water for lead in school buildings is required in just eight states. (GAO)

$267 million: Grants (30 percent of the total) and loans (70 percent) allocated to 103 rural communities for water and sewer infrastructure. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

News Briefs

Weaker Coal Ash Rules Finalized
Andrew Wheeler, the acting EPA administrator, signed his first final rule, weakening federal oversight of coal waste pits and their risk to groundwater.

The rule grants states the authority to develop their own regulatory programs, which will be subject to EPA approval. At the end of June, Oklahoma was the first state to gain such power.

The rule allows state directors to approve waste storage sites instead of professional engineers, and it allows directors to cancel monitoring of sites with no evidence of the potential to contaminate groundwater.

The revised rule also extends the deadline for closing high-hazard sites by 18 months, to October 31, 2020.

Lots of Water Bills in Congress
All that beach time must have stirred something in Congress.

  • The House passed a funding bill for the Interior Department and EPA that includes a number of amendments directed at western water policy. One would essentially veto the California Water Board’s plan to release more water from a Sierra Nevada reservoir into the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. Another would prohibit federal funds from being used to implement stricter water pollution standards in Washington state. The riders will face strong opposition in the Senate.
  • The House passed the Innovative Stormwater Infrastructure Act, which orders the EPA to form a task force to study funding of stormwater systems. The task force is to be made up of local and federal officials and private and nonprofit representatives.
  • The House passed the DELTA Act, which states that it is a U.S. interest to promote wildlife conservation and economic growth in the Okavango River watershed, shared by Angola, Botswana, and Namibia. The act authorizes the U.S. Agency for International Development administrator to assist in regional conservation partnerships.
  • The House passed the East Rosebud Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects a 13-mile stretch and a 7-mile stretch of East Rosebud Creek, in western Montana.
  • Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) introduced the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas Water Rights Settlement Agreement Act, a bill that ratifies an agreement between the state and the tribe. The bill grants the tribe 4,705 acre-feet of water per year from the Delaware River basin and requires the tribe to enact rules to govern use of the water.

Studies and Reports

Army Corps Releases Colorado Reservoir Plan
The Army Corps published the final environmental review of a plan to build two dams in northern Colorado that will supply 40,000 acre-feet of water to cities on the Front Range near Fort Collins.

Water for the dams will come from the Poudre River and South Platte River, both of which flow eastward from the Rockies. One of the dams will inundate part of U.S. 287 and require relocating seven miles of the highway.

The project will cut the flow of the Poudre River through Fort Collins nearly in half in the late spring months, according to the Army Corps’ analysis.

USGS Analyzes California Oil and Gas Risks
Twenty-two percent of California’s 487 onshore oil and gas fields are ranked as a high priority for monitoring for groundwater contamination, according to a U.S. Geological Survey analysis.

Prioritization was based on density of water wells, density of oil wells, proximity of oil wells to groundwater, and volume of water injected.

The next step is to assess risks to groundwater based on oil production data.

Reclamation Watchdog Questions California Water Agency Spending
A Central Valley irrigation district submitted $213,891 in questionable costs between June 2016 and May 2017, according to a Bureau of Reclamation inspector general’s report.

The costs, categorized as either excessive or not allowed under the terms of the contract with the Bureau of Reclamation, were spent on operating a facility to drain and treat salty water from the district’s fields. Hours were billed incorrectly and contractors were paid more than the contract allowed, the report states.

Puget Sound Restoration Monitoring
State, federal, and tribal task forces that are overseeing Puget Sound restoration actions can better monitor success by setting targets, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

On the Radar

Homeland Security Hosts Cybersecurity Briefing
The Department of Homeland Security has tracked Russian cyberattacks against water, energy, nuclear, aviation, and manufacturing sectors in the United States since March 2016.

For the next two weeks, the department will hold public briefings, via webinar, on Russian intrusions against critical U.S. infrastructure. The first briefing is July 23; see the link above for dial-in information.

In context: Water Sector Prepares for Cyberattacks

PFAS Exposure Study
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is seeking comment on its plan to assess exposure to PFAS chemicals in drinking water for people living on or near military bases.

ATSDR plans to study exposures at between eight and 15 sites.

In context: Perfluorinated Chemicals Health Study Included in Congress Budget Deal

Legionella Meeting Agenda Posted
On July 30, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will discuss how other countries have regulated Legionella and what the outcome has been. Country case studies from: Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada.

In context: Many Questions As Expert Committee Begins Study of Legionella in Plumbing

Flood Insurance Showdown
The federal flood insurance program expires at the end of the month, smack in the middle of hurricane season, which has insurers worried. Bloomberg BNA looks at the coastal-landlocked divide at the heart of the impasse.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that the Army Corps endorsed the Northern Integrated Supply Project dams. The Corps has just analyzed them.

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.

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