Federal Water Tap, July 30: Bill to Unravel EPA Chemical Toxicity Program Passes House Committee
House Science Committee votes to tear apart EPA’s IRIS program. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revokes an Obama administration policy requiring a net ecosystem benefit from oil, gas, mining, and other such projects. Reclamation criticizes California Water Board’s plan to boost San Joaquin River flows. Retiring House member floats a new infrastructure package with modest water goals. Congress nears completion of a Defense authorization bill with PFAS provisions. USGS evaluates the performance of the salmon cannon. A federal grand jury indicts maker of Crystal Geyser bottled water and two other companies for improper disposal of arsenic-laden wastewater. Despite governor’s request, Army Corps says it will continue Pebble Mine environmental review. And lastly, several meetings to note: EPA meetings in Colorado and North Carolina on PFAS chemicals, and the agency’s environmental justice council reports on water infrastructure financing.
“The bill appears to have been hastily drafted in secret, without getting any feedback from the affected agency or affected community. On top of being sloppily drafted and poorly vetted, this bill is just plain bad.” — Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) opposing a bill that would undo the EPA office that evaluates the health risk of chemicals. The House Science Committee approved the bill.
Correction: The Rundown last week erroneously stated that the Army Corps had endorsed two northern Colorado dams. The Corps has not yet done so. It has analyzed them.
By the Numbers
37 percent: April-to-July inflow this year for Lake Powell, measured as a percent of the 1981-2010 average. In absolute terms, the 2.7 million acre-feet inflow is the fifth lowest on record. (Bureau of Reclamation)
80.5 miles: Length of irrigation drainage channels whose title will be transferred to Pioneer Irrigation District and the city of Caldwell, both in Idaho. Congress is considering legislation to simplify these title transfers. (Bureau of Reclamation)
Chemical Assessment Bill Passes House Committee
The House Science Committee approved a bill that critics say would shatter the U.S. Environmental Agency’s independent assessment of the health risk of chemicals.
“It is essentially trying to dismantle the IRIS program, which has been under attack from industry for a long time,” Genna Reed told Circle of Blue. Reed is with the Center for Science and Democracy, a program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which opposes the bill.
The Improving Science in Chemical Assessments Act shifts responsibility for evaluating chemical toxicity from IRIS to the EPA’s offices of water, air, land, and chemical safety. Reed said that contaminants do not respect such “neat and tidy” divisions, and she wonders if those offices have the expertise to do the work.
The bill also opens the assessment process to groups other than the EPA. It establishes a steering committee chaired by a political appointee — the assistant administrator of the Office of Research and Development — that would be able to consider toxicity assessments by outside groups. Those could be other states or divisions of the federal government. They could also be industry groups, Reed said.
Democrats on the committee objected as well. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas called the bill “sloppily drafted and poorly vetted.”
IRIS is now working on an assessment of nitrate risk in drinking water. A draft is expected in 2020.
Fish and Wildlife Service Revokes Harm-Reduction Policy
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, effective July 30, will revoke an Obama administration policy that required oil and gas, mining, and other projects to offset their damage to ecosystems.
The service says that the former standard — which required a net ecosystem benefit, or at minimum, no net loss — is “inconsistent with current Executive branch policy.” President Trump’s March 2017 executive order on energy independence ordered agencies to eliminate rules that were a burden on the energy industry.
The service also justified withdrawing the policy because it questioned the legality of the net-benefit standard, especially if restoration actions were to take place far from the development site.
Reclamation Criticizes California River Flow Plan
In an eight-page letter to the chair of the California Water Board, the head of the Bureau of Reclamation said that the board’s plan to boost flows in the San Joaquin River may conflict with Reclamation’s operation of New Melones Dam, a federal structure in the watershed.
The board’s proposal privileges fish and wildlife at the expense of irrigation, domestic water supply, hydropower, and boating on the reservoir, argues Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation. The proposal, however, is also designed to protect agriculture within the river delta by lowering salt levels in the water.
Burman recommended that the board postpone an August 21-22 meeting during which it would consider adopting the amendments, and reconsider its proposal.
Infrastructure Bill Floated in House
Congress does not have much time before mid-term elections. Nonetheless, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), who is not running for reelection, unveiled draft infrastructure legislation.
The water provisions are modest, mainly reauthorizing existing programs: WIFIA, a loan fund managed by the EPA, technical assistance grants for rural communities and states, and nonpoint pollution control.
PFAS Provisions in Defense Authorization Bill
The Department of Veterans Affairs is required to establish a registry for veterans who were exposed to PFAS chemicals at military bases. The order is part of the Defense spending authorization bill that the House and Senate are close to completing. The registry, which would facilitate information sharing, would not apply to civilians living near bases whose wells were contaminated.
Crystal Geyser Bottler In Trouble for Arsenic Disposal
The company that produces Crystal Geyser bottled water and two other companies were indicted by a federal grand jury for alleged illegal disposal of arsenic-laden wastewater.
The indictment accuses the companies of not documenting the wastewater as a hazardous material and sending it to a facility not designated to handle such wastes.
Crystal Geyser filtered arsenic out of its source water before bottling it. The arsenic was then dumped into a manmade pit before being sent to the waste facilities.
Studies and Reports
USGS Assesses Performance of the ‘Salmon Cannon’
The Whooshh system, aka the salmon cannon, moves salmon over dams by sending them through a flexible plastic tube. It is a way to help salmon migrate upstream at dams that do not have fish passage.
When the system was tested in July 2017 at Cle Elum Dam, in Washington state, the U.S. Geological Survey evaluated salmon survival.
Over four days fish were released either directly into the dam’s reservoir or delivered via the cannon, a 518-meter journey through the tube, the longest that Whooshh has used. Survival started badly but then improved. Only 40 percent of the fish sent through the cannon on the first day were expected to survive until early September, the beginning of spawning.
After adjustments to the system and better lubrication of the tube, the survival rate increased substantially. Four out of five fish released on the last day of the test period survived until spawning, a result that was not statistically different than the fish released into the reservoir. Previous tests with shorter tubes also found little difference in survival rates between fish sent through Whooshh and control groups.
“It’s evidence that the system settings are important,” Tobias Kock, a U.S. Geological Survey fish biologist and study author, told Circle of Blue.
Kock identified several factors that affected fish survival: insufficient calibration of the Whooshh system before beginning operations, which resulted in the wrong size of tubing. (Many of the salmon were too small for the tube that was used.) Equipment malfunctions were also an issue. Misters that were supposed to lubricate the tube with water did not work early on. Also, most salmon did not enter the tubes on their own, as was expected. Instead they had to be netted and hand-loaded, which increased their stress.
Many of these problems were encountered because of a compressed time frame, Kock said. The experiment was originally designed for three to four weeks. But because the Columbia River salmon run in 2017 was so small, fewer fish were available for the study and the time at which they were available was truncated.
Army Corps Review of Pebble Mine Continues
Despite the Alaska governor’s request to halt an environmental review, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to continue its environmental assessment of the Pebble Mine, the Associated Press reports.
Gov. Bill Walker argued that the company has not shown an economically viable business plan, but the Army Corps maintains that an economic analysis is not a prerequisite.
On the Radar
PFAS Meeting in Colorado and North Carolina
The EPA will hold community meetings in Colorado and North Carolina to discuss PFAS chemicals in drinking water. The meeting in Colorado Springs, Colorado, takes place on August 7 and 8; and in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on August 14.
Environmental Justice Advisory Council Public Meeting
The council that advises the EPA on matters of environmental justice will gather in Boston from August 14 to 16 for a public meeting.
On the agenda: environmental justice issues in the Boston area and a final report from a committee looking into water infrastructure financing.
Registration is open for the in-person meeting and the teleconference.
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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