Federal Water Tap, November 19: EPA Watchdog Flags Unregulated Pollutants in Treated Sewage Sludge

The Rundown

The EPA has not determined the risks from hundreds of unregulated pollutants in treated sludge, the agency’s inspector general reports. Bills to establish a St. Francis Dam disaster memorial and to authorize two Montana rural water systems move forward in Congress. Thermoelectric power plant water withdrawals continue to decline. The USGS publishes a pair of groundwater studies, on recharge in Oregon and methane in Ohio. FERC seeks members for a task force on speeding up hydropower permitting. And lastly, the EPA’s drinking water advisory council holds a public meeting in December.

“Right now, the EPA is working to assess the safety of several hundred pollutants that have been found in biosolids. But the agency says it lacks the data and tools necessary to assess the health and environmental risks of many of these pollutants. As a result, the EPA is unable to state whether, and at what level, the pollutants found in biosolids pose a risk.” — Jill Trynosky, a project manager at the EPA Office of the Inspector General. Trynosky is a contributing author on a report on the unmeasured health and environmental risks in treated sludge.

By the Numbers

52.8 trillion gallons: Water withdrawn by thermoelectric power plants in 2017 for cooling, down more than 12 percent since 2014. The closure of coal plants, which require more water for cooling than natural gas units, has been a major factor in the decline. (Energy Information Administration)

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

News Briefs

EPA Watchdog Flags Unregulated Pollutants in Treated Sewage Sludge
An undermanned EPA is failing to adequately protect human health and the environment from hundreds of pollutants in treated sewage sludge, which is used for garden and field fertilizer in all 50 states, according to an investigation by the agency’s internal watchdog.

“We found the EPA’s controls over the land application of treated sewage sludge, or biosolids, were incomplete or had weaknesses and may not have fully protected human health and the environment,” said Jill Trynosky of the Office of the Inspector General.

The EPA monitors only nine pollutants in treated sewage sludge, according to the Office of the Inspector General’s report. The agency has identified 352 other pollutants in treated sludge, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and solvents, but has not yet completed risk assessments for them.

Sewage sludge are the solids that remain after initial treatment. After additional treatment, they are repackaged as biosolids and sold as fertilizer.

The nine pollutants that the EPA monitors are all heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead. No additional pollutants have been added to the monitoring list in the 25 years since the agency began its biosolids program.

Agency staff told the investigators that the research budget is insufficient to evaluate all the pollutants. The agency has also moved resources away from the biosolids program.

St. Francis Dam National Memorial
A bill to establish a national memorial and monument to commemorate the more than 400 people who were killed in the St. Francis Dam collapse moved out of Senate committee.

The tragedy occurred on March 12, 1928 in Los Angeles County, California.

The House already passed the bill.

New Cybersecurity Agency
President Trump signed a bill that establishes an agency within the Department of Homeland Security for coordinating the defense of the nation’s critical infrastructure from cyberattack.

Critical infrastructure includes water systems, dams, power plants, the electric grid, and other pieces of the country’s connective hardware.

In context: Water Sector Prepares for Cyberattacks

Montana Rural Water Systems Bill
A bill to authorize construction of two rural water supply systems in Montana moved out of Senate committee. The systems would serve one county in North Dakota as well.

Studies and Reports

USGS Groundwater Studies
The U.S. Geological Survey published two groundwater studies last week: on deep aquifer recharge in Oregon’s Umatilla River watershed and on methane in Ohio groundwater.

In the Umatilla watershed, researchers found that the Blue Mountains play a principal role in recharging groundwater that then moves into the lowlands.

In Ohio, 12 of 15 wells sampled had methane concentrations above a level that poses a risk of explosion. The wells were in a dozen counties with varying geological characteristics.

Though the goal was not to select wells influenced by fossil fuel extraction or other human activities, based on the chemical data collected, the researchers said it was not possible to link the methane to human or natural sources.

Limitations of the study include a small sample size and taking a single sample from each well.

On the Radar

National Drinking Water Advisory Council Meeting
The EPA’s drinking water advisory group will meet in Washington, D.C., on December 6 and 7.

The meeting is open to the public. To reserve a spot, send an email to ward.tracey@epa.gov with the subject line NDWAC 2018 Attendee. Include your name, address, and phone number.

There will be time for public comments at the meeting. Indicate your interest in the reservation email.

Snowpack
Bookmark this page for reference this winter. The federal drought response system compiled a list of snowpack data resources.

Water Information Advisory Committee Openings
The Interior Department is seeking nominations for a federal water data advisory group.

Energy Regulators Seek To Establish Hydropower Task Force
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is seeking state and federal agencies and Indian tribes to participate in a task force on speeding up hydropower permitting at dams that do not currently generate power.

Legislation signed by President Trump last month orders the formation of the task force. America’s Water Infrastructure Act requires FERC to issue a rule by mid-April that ensures a final permitting decision within two years on hydropower licenses at dams without turbines.

Agencies wanting to participate in the task force should submit a letter of interest by November 29 via http://www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/efiling.asp using docket number RM19-6-000.

In context: U.S. Hydropower Grows by Going Small

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). Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton

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