Federal Water Tap, May 21: PFAS Obstruction, Lead Rule Delay, GRACE Launch, Farm Bill Fail

The Rundown

It’s all in the headline this week. Under fire for the administration’s objections to the release of a health study, the EPA prepares for its perfluorinated chemicals conference. NASA sets the launch date for the sequel to the GRACE satellites. Farm bill fails in the House. A House committee introduces its version of a water infrastructure authorization bill, while an Alabama representative wants to increase funding for septic systems. CDC study finds disease risk in hotel pools. The White House aims to eliminate the use of certain unspent funds. And lastly, the EPA delays, once again, revisions to the lead and copper rule.

“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these new numbers is going to be huge. The impact to EPA and DoD is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.” — Email from an unnamed White House official acquired by the Union of Concerned Scientists. ATSDR is the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an agency that is preparing a study on the human health effects of perfluorinated chemicals, or PFAS, that shows a risk from lower levels than the current EPA guidelines.

By the Numbers

August 2019: Expected date for publishing draft revisions to the lead and copper rule, a six-month delay from the timetable announced last fall. The date for the final rule did not change; it is still scheduled for February 2020. This is the third time the Trump administration delayed the draft’s publication. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

$3 billion: Unspent dollars from past federal budgets that the Trump administration proposes to cut, using a process called rescission. Water-related cuts are: $107 million from Hurricane Sandy relief, $50 million from USDA’s flood prevention work, $37 million from rural water and sewer grants, and $10 million for water quality research. The administration argues the funds are unnecessary to carry out the programs they were allocated to or they duplicate the work of other programs. Congress has 45 days to accept or reject the proposal. (White House)

News Briefs

White House Objects to Release of Perfluorinated Chemicals Report
The White House objected to the release of a study showing that nonstick chemicals are damaging to human health at levels one-sixth that of the EPA’s current guidelines, according to emails obtained by the Union of Concern Scientists and reported on by Politico.

The story led congressional representatives from both parties to call on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to release the study, which is being conducted by a Department of Health and Human Services agency.

If lower guidelines were accepted, the federal government — and particularly the military — could be on the hook for more cleanup costs at bases around the country.

At one such site in Michigan, Air Force officials told Circle of Blue that they provide clean water only to homes where perfluorinated chemicals are higher than the EPA guidelines.

House Spending Bill Stuffed with Water Policy
The House’s interior and environment 2019 spending bill has a number of controversial legal mandates.

The bill would block lawsuits against a particular water project: a pair of multibillion-dollar tunnels to divert water around California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.

The bill would also repeal the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States rule, which defined water bodies that are regulated by the Clean Water Act, and it would prevent the EPA from regulating, under the Solid Waste Disposal Act, manure from large animal-feeding operations.

But the bill also increases allocations to the clean water and drinking water state revolving funds by $300 million (to $2.6 billion in total), and it provides $10 million for water and sewer infrastructure in colonias on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Farm Bill Fails in the House
Even in a divided Congress there are party lines that members will still cross. But these were some odd lines.

Thirty House Republicans, wanting a harder stance against immigration, joined the entire Democratic caucus to defeat the farm bill by a vote of 198 for and 213 against. The Democrats opposed the bill because of changes to food stamps.

The Senate is still working on its own version.

House Releases WRDA Bill
The Water Resources Development Act authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to build dams, lock, and levees and restore rivers and wetlands. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will debate its version of the bill on May 23.

The bill asks the National Academy of Sciences to report on the future of the Army Corps. The big question: whether the civil engineering division should be moved out of the Department of Defense.

Affordable Septic System Bill
Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) proposes increases grant funding to poor households for septic system improvements. Her bill would boost grants to $20,000.

In context: Septic Infrastructure in the United States

Studies and Reports

Beware Hotel Hot Tubs
They might make you sick. One out of three waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States between 2000 and 2014 was linked to hotel settings, namely pools and hot tubs, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

The primary illnesses are diarrhea, skin rashes, and Legionnaires disease, which is a form of pneumonia that can be lethal to older people.

The report likely undercounts the number of illnesses. It looks only at outbreaks — those in which two or more people report similar symptoms within the same time period.

Other leading outbreak sites were community pools and private recreational clubs.

On the Radar

PFAS Conference
The EPA holds its perfluorinated chemicals conference on May 22 and 23 at the agency’s D.C. headquarters. The draft agenda is here.

GRACE Launch
The sequel to the GRACE satellite mission could be launched as soon as May 22.

GRACE Follow-On’s gravity measurements will help researchers continue monitoring changes in the distribution of the world’s water and ice. Measurements from the initial GRACE mission, which launched in 2002, show large-scale redistribution of the world’s fresh water.

The satellite will hitch a ride on a SpaceX rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California.

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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