Federal Water Tap, September 10: Forest Service Reverses Proposed Obama-era Minnesota Mining Moratorium

The Rundown

The U.S. Forest Service reopens land in northern Minnesota near a wilderness area for mining. A House subcommittee’s PFAS hearing discusses drinking water regulation. FERC sets environmental review schedules for a dozen LNG export terminals. The Trump administration revokes funds for Colorado River research programs. The Interior Department seeks comments on potential changes to natural resources damage assessments. And lastly, a Senate committee holds a hearing later this month on PFAS chemicals.

“It’s our duty as responsible stewards of our environment to maintain and protect our natural resources. At the same time, we must put our national forests to work for the taxpayers to support local economies and create jobs.” — Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, explaining his department’s decision to undo a 20-year mining moratorium that the Obama administration proposed for Superior National Forest. (The U.S. Forest Service is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

“Congress should play a central role in setting the timeline for developing the PFAS drinking water standard, and ensuring that the standard is truly protective of public health.” — Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), speaking on September 6 at a House subcommittee hearing on PFAS chemicals.

By the Numbers

$23 million: Funding for the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program and two other research and conservation programs in the Colorado River basin that the Trump administration is revoking, thereby wiping out the program. The change will go into effect on October 1, but agency officials are looking for alternative funds.

The adaptive management programs help water managers understand the effect of Glen Canyon Dam on the downstream watershed and the ecology of the Grand Canyon. The other programs focus on endangered fish. (Arizona Daily Sun)

230 miles: Length of natural gas pipeline that Pacific Connector aims to build in Oregon to feed Jordan Cove, a proposed liquefied natural gas export terminal for Coos Bay. The pipeline and terminal are beginning an environmental review, including effects for stream crossings and groundwater, that will be completed by August 30, 2019, according to a newly announced review schedules for 12 LNG export terminals. (FERC)

News Briefs

Mining Leasing Reopened for Minnesota Forest
In a reversal, the U.S. Forest Service will resume mining and geothermal leases on some 234,000 acres of land in northern Minnesota near a wilderness area.

The agency argues that the decision balances conservation in public forests with economic opportunities.

The Obama administration, in its final days, sought to withdraw land in Superior National Forest from mining claims for 20 years because of the land’s proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the potential for contamination.

The Forest Service began an environmental assessment of the proposed withdrawal, but with the decision last week, the agency decided not to complete it.

Brady Smith, a Forest Service press officer, told Circle of Blue in an email that the decision was a “science-based analysis” but did not respond to a follow-up request for any documentation of the analysis.

House Hearing on PFAS Chemicals
On September 6, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee held a hearing to discuss PFAS chemicals, a class of fluorinated compounds that number in the thousands.

Witnesses included EPA and Defense Department officials, state agency representatives, a community activist in North Carolina, the director of Michigan’s PFAS response, and an NRDC health policy director.

Several representatives, acknowledging state efforts, questioned whether the EPA would set a federal standard for certain PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said that “we need a binding, enforceable, and strong drinking water standard.”

Peter Grevatt, director of the EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, said that the agency is considering a drinking water standard “very carefully as we speak.”

The EPA is preparing a PFAS management plan that will be published by the end of the year and include the agency’s recommendation for whether to begin the regulatory process for PFAS. The agency will then have to determine which of the many PFAS chemicals to regulate and at what concentration in drinking water.

Grevatt said that the agency will publish draft toxicity levels “in the coming weeks” for two PFAS chemicals: GenX, which has been found in North Carolina’s Cape Fear River downstream of a Chemours manufacturing facility, and PFBS.

After the hearing, Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, tweeted that he expected federal regulation of PFAS in drinking water in the future: “PFAS regulations appear to be inevitable, given what I heard at this hearing.”

New rules could cover other angles. The EPA could set cleanup standards for surface water and groundwater. It could also designate PFAS as a hazardous substance, a designation that would allow EPA to order cleanup actions and force polluters to pay. Grevatt said a recommendation would be in the management plan.

Studies and Reports

Inspector General Investigates Superfund Task Force
The EPA inspector general’s office announced it will investigate whether the agency followed the rules in establishing a task force to evaluate the Superfund program.

On the Radar

Senate PFAS Hearing
On September 26, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs discusses the federal role in responding to PFAS chemicals.

The committee’s top Democrat, Gary Peters, is from Michigan, where PFAS chemicals have become a hot-button political issue.

Interior to Review Natural Resources Damage Assessments
Before cleaning up a contaminated site, federal agencies assess the scene. These natural resources damage assessments, or NRDAs, determine what polluters are required to pay for cleanup.

The Interior Department is seeking comment on whether the process should be altered. Critics say that the NRDAs are lumbering procedures that delay cleanups. Interior is looking for comment on speeding up the process, simplifying the rule’s language, using restoration “banks,” and other topics.

The review grew, in part, out of President Trump’s order for agencies to evaluate their regulations for revision or elimination. Interior last updated its NRDA policies in 2008.

Submit comments by October 26 via www.regulations.gov using docket number DOI-2018-0006.

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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