Federal Water Tap, June 25: PFAS Chemicals Harmful at Lower Levels, Health Agency Says

The Rundown

PFAS study provides risk levels for four manmade chemicals. White House proposes massive reorganization of executive branch duties. EPA takes no additional steps to keep oil and chemical spills out of waterways. U.S. water withdrawals continue to decline. Trump executive order focuses on energy resources of Great Lakes and oceans. EPA outlines water quality goals for next phase of Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Senate rejects amendment to repeal WOTUS rule. The House passes a farm bill. And lastly, the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner is ready to build water storage projects.

“We are here and ready to work on projects, infrastructure in the West. Take advantage of that. It’s not that big a window. It’s going to go by incredibly fast.” — Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, told attendees of the Idaho Water Users Association conference. Burman said the bureau is looking at a budget increase of $400 million and wants to help fund water storage projects in western states.

By the Numbers

9 percent: Decrease in total U.S. water withdrawals from 2010 to 2015. The change is mainly due to decreases in the electric power sector and by municipal utilities. The drought in California also played a role. (U.S. Geological Survey)

News Briefs

White House Reorganization Proposal Affects Water
It’s no secret that the Trump administration wants to radically change the structure and scope of the federal government. A 132-page proposal released last week lays out its vision for a smaller bureaucracy.

Several recommendations affect water:

  • Move the Army Corps’ waterway navigation duties (e.g., dredging channels) to the Department of Transportation and its water infrastructure mission (e.g., dams and levees) to the Department of the Interior.
  • Reduce the oversight and enforcement role of the Environmental Protection Agency in favor of state authority.
  • Merge the National Marine Fisheries Service, a Commerce Department agency, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a Bureau of Reclamation office.
  • Move the water office at the U.S. Agency for International Development into a bureau that also includes food security and climate.

The administration argues that consolidation would improve government effectiveness. It can’t make the changes on its own, though. Shuttling agencies between departments and splitting duties would require an act (or acts) of Congress. CRS has a helpful backgrounder on the legal limits for executive branch reorganizations.

Some of these ideas already have patrons in Congress. The House version of the Water Resources Development Act asks the National Academy of Sciences to weigh in on moving the Army Corps out of the Defense Department.

In context: In USAID Redesign, Water Is Grouped with Food and Climate

Ocean Policy Reversal Affects Great Lakes
A Michigan senator is worried that an executive order from President Trump that overturns an Obama-era directive on the Great Lakes and oceans will be environmentally harmful to her state.

The executive order, signed June 19, states that it is national policy to “ensure that Federal regulations and management decisions do not prevent productive and sustainable use of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes waters.”

Much of the order’s language focuses on economic growth, entrepreneurial opportunities, ocean industries, and energy security. That contrasts with the Obama order, which was signed in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and emphasized biological diversity, conservation, and scientific inquiry.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) interpreted the Trump order as attempting to open the door to oil and gas drilling in the Great Lakes, which was banned by Congress in 2005. Stabenow asked the president to confirm his support for the law.

EPA Says No Additional Action Needed for Hazardous Spills
EPA will propose no additional regulations to prevent chemical and oil spills into waterways. The agency argues that existing rules are sufficient.

A federal judge ordered the EPA, in 2015, to consider whether it needed to do more to prevent spills of hazardous substances from above-ground storage tanks. The order was in response to a lawsuit filed after tanks in West Virginia leaked a coal-production chemical into the Elk River in 2014. That spill shut down water supplies to Charleston, the state capital.

Public comments are due August 24. They should be submitted at www.regulations.gov under docket EPA-HQ-OLEM-2018-0024.

Senate Rejects Amendment to Repeal WOTUS
The amendment was proposed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) for a 2019 appropriations bill. It’s a game of whack-a-mole, though. The House version of the farm bill has a provision to repeal the Obama-era rule. The EPA is working itself to undo its own work.

House Passes Farm Bill
Try, try again.

After failing a month ago, the House regrouped and passed its farm bill, which has a large effect on water quality. Producers who adopt conservation practices that prevent water pollution are eligible for higher payments. The bill increases funding for regional conservation partnerships from $100 million a year to $250 million a year.

Studies and Reports

Delayed PFAS Report Set Loose
After an outcry from all political sides, a government health agency released a draft report that shows two manmade chemicals are damaging to health at lower levels than EPA guidelines.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reckons that the risk level for PFOA is 11 parts per trillion (roughly seven times lower than the EPA health advisory, which is 70 ppt) and for PFOS, 7 ppt. The EPA advisory is not legally enforceable but many utilities and states use it as a benchmark. A few states have set limits near the ATSDR levels.

ATSDR derives its numbers using different calculations and exposure lengths than the EPA. The ATSDR numbers, which look at exposures from less than two weeks to more than a year, are used to inform health risks from contaminated sites.

The report discusses the toxicity of an additional 12 PFAS chemicals, none of which is regulated in drinking water by the EPA, and provides risk levels for two of them: PFNA (11 ppt) and PFHxS (74 ppt). There was not enough data to calculate risk levels for the other 10 chemicals.

Representatives from both political parties called for the study’s release after emails acquired under the Freedom of Information Act revealed the administration’s concern about a “public relations nightmare.”

U.S. Water Withdrawals Continue Marked Decline
Even though the country is growing, U.S. water withdrawals dropped to the lowest level since before 1970 with steep declines for municipal and electric power sectors, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.

Total withdrawals fell 9 percent in 2015 compared to 2010, even as the country’s population increased 4 percent.

The USGS report illustrates that the use of water in America’s economic and domestic spheres is on a radically different trajectory than it was a generation ago. Withdrawals peaked in 1980, flattened through 2005, and declined substantially in 2010 and 2015.

In context: U.S. Water Withdrawals Continue Marked Decline

On the Radar

Government Reorganization Hearing
On June 27, the House Oversight Committee will discuss the White House plan to reshape the executive branch.

Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Goals
The EPA outlined its expectations for cleanup plans that the seven states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed must submit by December 2019. The plans will outline actions through 2025 to meet required reductions of nutrients and sediment flowing into the bay.

Most states are doing well, but Pennsylvania is far behind, missing its targets. It is only 10 percent of the way toward its nitrogen goal. The EPA will provide technical assistance to Pennsylvania, and the agency expects the state to submit progress reports every six months.

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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