Federal Water Tap, September 4: EPA Sets Target for Reducing Drinking Water Violations

The Rundown

The EPA wants to reduce by one-quarter the number of drinking water systems with health-based violations by 2020. The EPA has not initiated a Columbia River basin restoration program that Congress ordered, the GAO finds. The EPA also has not finished a plan for cleaning up abandoned uranium mines on Navajo Nation lands. The CDC plans to study the effect of water main breaks on gastrointestinal illness. The EPA considers changes to wastewater treatment rules for separate sanitary sewage systems and assesses wastewater from onshore oil and gas production. And lastly, the Congressional Research Service looks at Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s legal record.

By the Numbers

54: Abandoned uranium mine sites on or near the Navajo Nation that the EPA is preparing to cleanup. The agency, which received nearly $1 billion in 2015 to address water and soil contamination from the sites, is working on a plan to guide its cleanup, but it has not completed the plan. The money came from a legal settlement with companies that acquired assets of the former operator of the mines. (EPA Inspector General)

News Briefs

EPA Drinking Water Target
At an agency-sponsored conference, officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a goal of reducing by one-quarter the number of drinking water systems that violate health standards by 2020. The agency is using 3,600 systems in violation in 2017 as a baseline, according to the press office.

Officials also announced that the agency will publish a plan later this year to help states and utilities deal with PFAS chemical contamination in drinking water sources.

Presentations from the three-day conference and attendee lists can be found here.

Studies and Reports

Water Main Breaks and Illness
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to study the effect of water main breaks and drops in distribution system water pressure on diarrhea and other gastrointestinal illness.

Similar studies in Sweden and Norway showed a higher risk of sickness after a pipe break, but no such study has been done in the United States, the CDC says.

Data will be collected from customers of seven water utilities. The study is expected to last six and a half years.

EPA Ignores Columbia River Restoration
Though directed to do so by Congress in 2016, the EPA has not initiated a restoration program for the Columbia River basin, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

A 2016 law required the EPA to assess water quality in the basin, develop a program to provide grants to local and state partners, and form a working group to prioritize projects within the watershed. In addition, the Office of Management and Budget was ordered to prepare an annual budget for the program.

None of these actions have taken place, according to interviews with agency officials. EPA has not received funding for the program, but it also has not requested any funding.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Legal Record
Congressional Research Service produced a lengthy, 194-page examination of the Supreme Court nominee’s legal record.

On environmental law, CRS notes that Kavanaugh “tends to narrowly construe an agency’s authority or sharply question an agency’s statutory interpretation as a means to preserve the separation of powers among the three branches of government.” That means he views agencies as having less discretion to craft rules, unless Congress explicitly grants the power.

On the Radar

Managing Peak Flows
The EPA is holding three listening sessions in October to gather public input on potential changes to wastewater treatment rules.

The changes, not yet announced, would affect peak flow requirements for systems whose sewage systems are separate from stormwater sewers. During heavy rains, groundwater may enter the sewage network through cracks or gaps in pipes. This increased flow can exceed a treatment plant’s capacity, resulting in some sewage bypassing treatment. The diverted flows are blended with treated water before being discharged to a river, lake, or ocean.

Changes could include stricter requirements for reducing infiltration, or improvements in treatment plant operations.

Conference: Delivering Water During Long-term Power Outage
On September 19, the EPA hosts a one-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, on preparing utilities for delivering water and treating sewage when the electric grid goes down.

Power outages in the New York-New Jersey region in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy — plus the inundated of backup generators or lack of on-site fuel — resulted in large discharges of untreated sewage.

In context: After Superstorm Sandy, Leaders Assess Disaster Plans and Mull Climate Change Adaptation

Oil and Gas Wastewater Management
The EPA will hold a public meeting on October 9, in Washington, D.C., to discuss an agency study on managing wastewater from onshore oil and gas drilling.

The study will inform regulatory changes.

The EPA is already looking at opportunities for engagement. In July the agency signed a memorandum of understanding with the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department to form a working group that will investigate the reuse of oilfield wastewater.

To attend the October 9 meeting, email oil-and-gas-study@epa.gov with your name, organization, and whether you want a three-minute speaking slot.

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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