Federal Water Tap, November 26: Climate Report Warns That U.S. Water Security At Risk

The Rundown

Major government climate report focuses on climate change consequences for aging water infrastructure. EPA’s request for a six-month extension to establish limits for perchlorate in drinking water gets a step closer to being granted. A U.S. district court dismisses a lawsuit over groundwater pollution and the Clean Water Act. The EPA approves tests for four additional PFAS chemicals and publishes draft toxicity levels for two others, GenX and PFBS. And lastly, an EPA environmental justice advisory council holds a public meeting this week.

“Water security in the United States is increasingly in jeopardy.” — First sentence of the water chapter of the National Climate Assessment, a comprehensive government report on the consequences of climate change for the United States.

By the Numbers

16: Superfund sites prioritized for immediate action. The list does not represent the most contaminated sites; rather, it identifies sites where direct involvement from top officials can facilitate cleanup. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

4: Additional PFAS chemicals that now have an analytical test for detection in water supplies. That brings the number of PFAS chemicals with an approved analytical test to 18. There are perhaps several thousand such compounds. (EPA)

News Briefs

NRDC Endorses Extension for EPA’s Perchlorate Drinking Water Limit
The Natural Resources Defense Council, in a court filing, said it approves of a six-month extension for an EPA drinking water rule. The agency is working on a national standard for perchlorate in drinking water.

NRDC brought a lawsuit in 2016 to force the EPA to set a timeline for regulating the rocket fuel chemical. Perchlorate is found in the water of between 5 million and 17 million people, according to the agency. EPA officials determined in 2011 that the chemical warranted regulation in drinking water.

Eric Burneson, director of the standards and risk management division of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, told NRDC lawyers that significant work remains to develop the standard.

Clean Water Act and Groundwater
Another case, another contradictory ruling.

A U.S. district court in Illinois dismissed a lawsuit that claims Dynegy Energy, a power company, is violating the Clean Water Act by allowing pollutants from coal ash ponds to seep into groundwater that then flows into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.

The court asserted that the Clean Water Act has no jurisdiction over groundwater, basing its conclusion on a ruling from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which sets legal precedent in the district.

The suit was brought by Prairie Rivers Network, a nonprofit environmental group. Dynegy oversees three coal ash ponds at Vermilion Power Station, a coal-fired plant in Illinois that closed in 2011.

The decision is the latest in a series of federal court cases over groundwater and the Clean Water Act. Environmental groups have brought at least a half dozen suits centered on the “conduit theory,” which holds that pollutants that move via groundwater to a river or lake should be regulated under the Clean Water Act.

Appeals court rulings have been split so far. With the number of contradictory rulings, legal observers expect the U.S. Supreme Court eventually to weigh in. The EPA has also taken interest, soliciting public comments in February on whether it should clarify the rules.

In context: Sixth Circuit Rulings Muddle Question of Clean Water Act Authority Over Groundwater

Carrying Out Trump’s Water Memo
The Bureau of Reclamation and the Commerce Department designated the federal official who will coordinate agency actions in carrying out President Trump’s October directive to maximize water deliveries to farms and cities in California.

That official is Paul Souza, who is the Southwest Pacific regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Studies and Reports

Climate Report Warns That Warming Planet Threatens U.S. Water Security
Putting human health, life, and jobs at risk, a reliable supply of clean water for cities, farms, industries, and ecosystems in the United States while also managing droughts and floods is “increasingly in jeopardy,” according to an expansive U.S. government report on the consequences of climate change in the country.

The National Climate Assessment, required by an act of Congress and written by more than 300 scientists, half from outside the federal government, is meant to inform U.S. leaders about changes to land, water, and air from a warming planet.

The volume of the report that was released the day after Thanksgiving focuses on how those physical changes will dramatically reshape human life and the systems that support it. The report also underscores troubling knowledge gaps about how the projected increase in extreme storms and heat will affect the nation’s water supply.

The authors of the water chapter emphasized that the nation’s water infrastructure was not designed for past extremes, let alone future climate changes.

Read more about the report’s water chapter at Circle of Blue.

EPA Posts Toxicity Levels for Two Additional PFAS Chemicals
The agency published draft toxicity levels for GenX and PFBS, two PFAS chemicals in the news lately.

Scientific studies cited by the agency suggest that GenX is more toxic, particularly for the liver, than PFBS. Both are less toxic, after short-term and long-term exposure, than PFOA and PFOS, the two most well-known of the chemicals.

The studies are largely based on evaluations of mice.

GenX entered the Cape Fear watershed in North Carolina from a Chemours manufacturing facility. North Carolina officials announced last week that they plan to fine the company $13 million and require it to provide alternative water to households with the chemical in their wells, the News and Observer reports.

PFBS, a “short-chain,” PFAS chemical, meaning it has fewer carbon atoms in its structure, was introduced as a replacement for longer-chain compounds that were phased out of use in the United States following an agreement by the EPA and manufacturers. Shorter-chain compounds are more likely to dissolve in water.

Public comments on the draft toxicity analysis are being accepted through January 22, 2019. Submit them via www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2018-0614.

Water Infrastructure in Border Communities
The EPA released a two-year report on environmental projects funded through its U.S.-Mexico border communities program. Water projects included upgrading a wastewater treatment facility in Imperial County, California, and a park in the Mexican state of Sonora that keeps stormwater out of a sewer system that spans the border.

On the Radar

Environmental Justice Meeting
The council that advises the EPA on environmental justice will hold a public teleconference on November 28. Registration is no longer open, but check the Water Tap next week for a meeting recap.

PFAS Testing Webinar
On November 28, the EPA will hold a webinar to discuss the analytical tests for an additional four PFAS chemicals. Register here.

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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