The EPA uses its drinking water health advisory to guide PFAS cleanup in groundwater. Senators ask the GAO to assess the cost to the federal government of PFAS cleanup. Senate Democrats release report on the financial costs of climate change. A federal health research agency publishes more details on a PFAS health study. The BLM assesses hydraulic fracturing in California. Energy regulators finalize a rule that quickens the permitting process for certain hydropower facilities. Congress returns from spring break. And lastly, the FEMA acting administrator says Americans need to do more to protect themselves from natural hazards.
“The fight in Oscoda is really a fight for something that’s pretty fundamental. It’s a fight for a clean environment. It’s a fight that starts with the premise that our water — our drinking water and our groundwater — ought to be safe.” — Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) speaking about the Defense Department’s obstruction of action to address PFAS contamination from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. The chemicals have contaminated groundwater, wetlands, streams, and lakes around Oscoda, Michigan.
“Most people think, ‘I see it on TV, it’ll never happen to me – I’m not going to make the time or investment.’ We haven’t solved the problem in a significant way.” — Pete Gaynor, acting head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in an interview with Bloomberg about disaster prevention.
By the Numbers
5: Priority recommendations that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has implemented since March 2018. Those actions relate to chemical standards, nonpoint water pollution, and water pollution assessment. There are, however, 14 priority recommendations that the agency has not acted on. (Government Accountability Office)
PFAS Groundwater Cleanup Standards
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published draft guidance for responding to groundwater contamination from toxic PFAS chemicals.
The guidance covers the two most-studied of the thousands of PFAS compounds: PFOA and PFOS. It sets contamination levels that would trigger additional investigation and establishes goals for groundwater cleanup.
The cleanup goals are based on the EPA’s health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. The EPA “expects” that parties responsible for the contamination will address PFOA and PFOS levels above that. This applies in states that do not have their own cleanup standards, which can be more strict.
However, stricter state standards are no guarantee of action. The Air Force has claimed sovereign immunity from Michigan’s 12 parts per trillion limit where groundwater discharges to surface water.
Public comments are being accepted for 45 days after publication in the Federal Register.
PFAS Cleanup Request
A Republican senator and two Democratic colleagues asked a watchdog agency to investigate the government’s response to PFAS contamination.
In a letter, Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE), Ron Johnson (R-WI), and Gary Peters (D-MI) requested that the Government Accountability Office answer a number of questions, among them:
- The estimated cost to the federal government of cleaning up PFAS contamination in water supplies where the government is the drinking water provider.
- Actions that agencies have taken to reduce the federal government’s financial liability.
- Research that is needed to understand human health effects.
- Progress the Defense Department has made in finding non-toxic alternatives for firefighting foam, which is a source of contamination.
Hydropower Licensing Change
Federal energy regulators finalized rules that will quicken the permitting process for certain new hydropower projects.
Final decisions for projects will be issued no more than two years after a completed application is submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The new rules apply to existing dams that do not currently generate power and to pumped storage projects.
The change was ordered by Congress last year.
In context: U.S. Hydropower Grows By Going Small
Studies and Reports
California Hydraulic Fracturing Review
The Bureau of Land Management released a supplemental review of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in California.
The assessment was ordered by a U.S. district court, which said that the BLM needed to do more analysis on the environmental effects of fracking before updating the region’s resource management plan. The plan, published in 2014, covers five counties in the southern Central Valley and three counties — San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura — on the coast. It was challenged by Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres ForestWatch.
In its supplemental review, the BLM determined that amending the plan is “not warranted.” The limited amount of hydraulic fracturing expected to occur in the region “did not show a notable increase in total impacts,” according to the BLM, which said that effects on surface water, groundwater use, and groundwater quality from disposal of fracking waste are “negligible.” Up to 40 fracked wells over 10 years are expected, according to the review.
Fracking is infrequently used in California. Annual water use for fracking in the state amounts to several hundred acre-feet, according to state officials.
Financial Cost of Climate Change
Democrats on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs released a report on the financial costs of climate change. Most of the report is sourced from previous work by federal agencies, but it also recommends that the federal government be more rigorous in detailing its climate-related spending.
Sen. Gary Peters, the committee’s top Democrat, convened a field hearing on April 22 in East Lansing, Michigan, that covered some of the issues in the report.
PFAS Health Study
A federal health research agency published more information about the structure of a study on the human health effects of PFAS compounds.
The Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry will select six sites for the study and standardize research protocols so that results can be compared across sites.
On the Radar
After spring break, Congress is back with a full slate of hearings:
- On April 29, the House Rules Committee will discuss the Climate Action Now Act, which requires the president to develop a plan for meeting the U.S. commitment to the Paris climate agreement.
- On April 30, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform looks at the public health effects of climate change.
- On May 1, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing on the humanitarian consequences of the war in Syria. There are two scheduled witnesses: David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, and Ben Stiller, the actor best known for his comedy roles who is also a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency.
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). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton