Federal Water Tap, March 12: EPA Denies Alabama Environmental Justice Claim and Unveils Lake Erie Phosphorus Plan

The Rundown

Black residents of Uniontown, Alabama, did not convince the EPA that dumping coal ash in a landfill near town was discriminatory. An EPA advisory committee, meanwhile, recommends the agency adopt a human rights approach to water. The EPA’s Lake Erie plan aims for 40 percent phosphorus reduction but the strategy is largely voluntary. House Republicans hint at how they’ll address infrastructure legislation while Senate Democrats reveal a $1 trillion public works spending plan. The U.S. Supreme Court issues rulings in two water cases. And lastly, the EPA looks to fill four vacancies on an environmental justice advisory council.

“We don’t want to do one big bill. We want to break it into pieces.” — Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) describing the House playbook for addressing infrastructure piece by piece.

“Instead of trying to take this shotgun approach, and throwing a nickel at every $10 problem across the country, I think what makes more sense is: let’s prioritize what the federal government’s true infrastructure objectives are and then invest money in those things.” — Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) offering his view on federal investment. Graves, who chairs a House subcommittee on water resources, also supports moving the Army Corps of Engineers civil works program out of the Defense Department, a move that at least one high-ranking Republican has endorsed.

By the Numbers

$115 billion: Size of drinking water and sewer infrastructure investment proposed by Senate Democrats. Four-fifths of the money would be channeled through state revolving funds, which are a vehicle for low-interest loans. The remainder would move through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural grant program. To pay for the infrastructure plan Democrats would eliminate some of the tax cuts that were just enacted. (Senate Democrats)

News Briefs

No EJ Claim for Uniontown
In closing an environmental justice investigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that there was “insufficient evidence” that residents of a predominantly African-American town in Alabama were discriminated against due to pollution from coal ash waste.

In 2008, a dam that held a power plant’s coal waste broke in eastern Tennessee. The waste was moved to Arrowhead Landfill in Perry County, Alabama, near the community of Uniontown, which is 90 percent black. Residents complained that the landfill polluted air and groundwater.

Supreme Court Opinion in Texas v New Mexico
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government may intervene in the water-sharing dispute between the Rio Grande neighbors. Texas alleges that New Mexico is violating an interstate compact by pumping groundwater that would have flowed into the river.

Written by Neil Gorsuch, the newest justice, the opinion does not argue that the federal government has “blanket authority” to intervene in compact cases. But it does argue that the particulars of this case warrant a role. Reasons: the government is involved in the delivery of water to downstream users in Texas as well as to Mexico under the Rio Grande Treaty.

The court sent the case back to its appointed expert for further hearings.

Supreme Court Upholds Water Transfers Rule
The high court decided to let stand a lower court ruling that exempts the movement of water between water bodies from federal water pollution permitting, Reuters reports.

Studies and Reports

EJ Council Recommends Human Rights Approach to Water
A council that advises the EPA on environmental justice told the agency that its top goal for ensuring water and sanitation for poor and minority communities is to approach it as a human rights issue.

The human rights recommendation was one of eight goals submitted by the council in a draft report on water infrastructure. Other recommendations include: request more funding from Congress, identify water access issues in poor and minority communities, involve those residents in decisions, and establish a household standard for lead in drinking water.

“The complexity of the nation’s water infrastructure needs will require vigilant communication and information to reduce and prevent wide-scale contamination, costs and harm,” the report states.

Lake Erie Phosphorus Plan
The EPA released a five-year plan to reduce harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie by cutting the amount of phosphorus by 40 percent. The reduction is compared to 2008 levels.

The plan coordinates state and federal actions. Critics point out that the targets rely on voluntary compliance by private landowners. No new federal rules are proposed.

Chesapeake Bay Healing
The U.S. Geological Survey found that groundwater is an important source of nitrogen into the Chesapeake Bay. This comes the same week that federal scientists contributed to a study that found a long-term reductions in nitrogen in the bay helped sea grasses to rebound. It “validates 30 years of environmental policy,” they wrote.

On the Radar

Environmental Finance
The EPA renewed for two years the charter for an expert group that advises the agency on how to pay for water infrastructure, air quality, ecosystem restoration, and other financing questions. The board has recommended that the EPA reconsider its water affordability criteria.

Environmental Justice
The EPA needs to fill four vacancies on the environmental justice advisory council. Nominations are due April 13. The term lasts through September 2019.

House Hearing on Army Corps
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discusses Army Corps water projects on March 15.

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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