Federal Water Tap, May 29: Michigan Congressman Asks EPA Watchdog to Investigate PFAS Meeting Access

The Rundown

The EPA restricts press access at its perfluorinated chemicals conference. Senators comment on the EPA’s groundwater pollution stance. EPA publishes two standards to guide testing of unregulated contaminants in drinking water. NOAA forecasts an average number of major hurricanes this season. And lastly, federal scientists say there is still large uncertainty about the severity of this summer’s Lake Erie algal bloom.

“It’s clear this issue is a national priority.” – EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaking about perfluorinated chemicals at a conference hosted by the agency. Pruitt said that the EPA would consider whether national drinking water standards for two of the most well-known chemicals are necessary.

By the Numbers

1 to 4: Number of major hurricanes (category 3 or higher) expected in the Atlantic region this season. The average number of major storms is three. The Atlantic region includes the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. A word of caution about interpreting the forecast: storms not classified as “major” can still cause severe damage. Storms are categorized based on wind speed, not flood potential, which is a more complex consideration involving what is built where. (NOAA)

News Briefs

Pruitt’s PFAS Conference
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prevented journalists from attending parts of a two-day conference the agency hosted on the risks of perfluorinated chemicals, a class of contaminants that have drawn intense public concern in the last two years.

Perfluorinated chemicals have been detected in groundwater, rivers, and public water systems nationwide. Conference speakers and guests were primarily state and federal officials and organizations that represent them. An industry group, the American Chemistry Council, had a speaking slot. One group representing an affected community was invited.

The conference drew attention not only for what was discussed, but for who was not there to hear it. Guards removed an Associated Press reporter from the venue on the first day, saying that there was not enough space.

Reporters were barred from attending the second day.

Political staff couldn’t get pass the door, either. Staff from Rep. Dan Kildee’s office were turned away. A Michigan Democrat, Kildee represents a town that is dealing with PFAS contamination from a closed Air Force base.

Kildee asked the EPA inspector general to investigate whether the agency broke federal laws pertaining to open meetings.

Senate and House Committees Approve Water Infrastructure Bills
House and Senate committees approved versions of a water infrastructure bill that outlines which projects are eligible for federal funds.

Congress usually reviews the Water Resources Development Act, as it is generically called, every two years. The act authorizes levee, lock, dam, and ecosystem projects overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Route Fifty, a news site that focuses on government, flags a substantial difference in the two bills: the Senate version addresses drinking water and sewer financing, in addition to Army Corps provisions.

Studies and Reports

EPA Publishes Contaminant Monitoring Standards
Every few years, the EPA requires utilities to test drinking water supplies for unregulated contaminants. The data help the agency determine whether it should issue a national limit.

The fourth round of sampling — for 30 chemicals and toxins — is underway, and the EPA published two monitoring standards. One is the minimum level for detecting the chemicals in samples. The other is a guideline related to health concerns. For some contaminants, like algal toxins, that means different levels for infants compared to adults. For chemicals, that means a cancer risk of one-in-one-million. The levels, however, are not regulatory standards.

Water Savings in Federal Building Design
The process for designing federal buildings does not fully account for the cost of operations and maintenance, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The Design Excellence Program, which began in 1994, aims for distinctive buildings that are also functional. In some cases the program resulted in buildings with efficient water, energy, and landscaping systems. But current policies do not require assessment of most operations and maintenance costs early in the planning phase.

On the Radar

Lake Erie Algae Severity Still Uncertain
Federal scientists say there is still “large uncertainty” in how severe the algal bloom in Lake Erie’s western basin will be this summer. Much depends on spring rainfall, which washes fertilizer into waterways. The location — and thus the impact — of the bloom then depends on wind. The bloom peaks in late August or September.

Comments on EPA’s Stance on Groundwater Pollution
The agency asked for comments on its policy that the discharge of pollutants to groundwater that is connected to rivers, lakes, and oceans is covered by the Clean Water Act.

Nine Senate Republicans told the EPA that it should not keep that policy. “EPA must clarify that discharges into groundwater are not subject to NPDES permitting,” they wrote.

Green groups, many of which have filed lawsuits against such discharges from coal ash ponds, take the opposite view, arguing that the agency “lacks the authority” to adopt a different position.

Federal courts have heard cases from Hawaii, South Carolina, and Virginia in the last year about this issue.

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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