Federal Water Tap, August 5: EPA Revokes Pebble Mine Veto

The Rundown

The EPA, after criticizing an Army Corps environmental analysis, withdraws its veto of a controversial Alaska mine. Republican senators introduce a bill to limit the scope of the Clean Water Act. An upcoming draft revision of lead-in-drinking-water rules might ban partial lead service line replacements. Hurricane Barry reduces the size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. The EPA proposes changes to federal coal ash regulations. And lastly, the EPA will hold a public hearing before granting Georgia the authority to oversee coal ash permitting.

“Given the substantial potential impacts and risks of the proposed project and weaknesses in the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS), the DEIS likely underestimates adverse impacts to groundwater and surface water flows, water quality, wetlands, fish resources, and air quality. Therefore, conclusions that the project will not violate applicable water quality and air quality standards should be further supported. Our detailed comments include recommendations to provide significant additional information about key project components and plans and improve the environmental modeling and other aspects of the impact assessment.” — U.S. Environmental Protection Agency comments on an Army Corps evaluation of the Pebble mine, a proposed development in the Bristol Bay watershed in southwestern Alaska.

By the Numbers

6,952 square miles: Size of the 2019 low-oxygen “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. It is the eighth largest on record, but 11 percent smaller than forecasted in June. That’s because Hurricane Barry churned the waters and mixed oxygen into depleted nearshore areas just before the official measurement was taken, in late July. (NOAA)

News Briefs

EPA Reopens Pebble Mine Review
The EPA reversed an Obama administration decision to veto an open-pit gold, copper, and molybdenum mine in southwestern Alaska.

The agency will now coordinate with the Army Corps of Engineers on an environmental review of the project, a necessary step for the mine to gain federal approval. The Army Corps of Engineers released its review in February 2019.

The EPA claims that it is rescinding its veto because of new details about the scope of the project, which were submitted to the Army Corps. Mine developers, for instance, now say that they will not use cyanide leaching to process the ore, which could result in less harm to watersheds, the EPA suggests.

The Pebble mine, a clash of resource economies, attracted intense opposition from tribes, the fishing industry, and environmental groups because of what is downstream: one of the world’s most bountiful salmon fisheries, in Bristol Bay. The head of Northern Dynasty, the mine developer, praised the EPA for curtailing the previous administration’s “overreach.”

Opposition centers around leakage of toxic substances from the mine waste, which would be stored in two pits covering nearly 4,000 acres. That’s not all. Associated infrastructure that would be built includes a 270-megawatt natural gas power plant, a 188-mile natural gas pipeline, a port, and access roads. The water discharged from the waste pits would require treatment “in perpetuity,” according to the EPA.

The EPA criticized the Army Corps’ draft environmental impact statement. The agency said that the draft “may substantially underpredict potentially significant impacts to water quality.” Those impacts: seepage from waste pits, leaching of toxic metals, and effectiveness of water treatment.

EPA Proposes Coal Ash Rules Change
To increase the recycling of coal waste as fill material, the EPA is proposing changes to federal regulations.

The agency suggests eliminating a mass cap (12,400 tons) for “unencapsulated” use, meaning as fill material for embankments. (Encapsulated uses include concrete and drywall.) Going above that cap triggered environmental monitoring for potential contamination of groundwater, rivers, or soils. Instead, after perusing state regulations, the rule proposes using proximity to wetlands or the groundwater table as the controlling factor for setting off a review.

The proposal also includes changes to groundwater monitoring requirements and risk assessments for boron, a toxic constituent of coal ash.
Andrew Wheeler, the head of the EPA, said the changes will result in “responsible management.” But green groups panned the ideas, saying that they lack teeth.

A 60-day public comment period will open once the proposal is published in the Federal Register. A public hearing is scheduled for October 2 in the Washington, D.C. area.

WOTUS in Congress
Two midwestern Republican senators, hoping to write into law the policy changes sought by the Trump administration, submitted a bill to significantly narrow the number of waterways that are regulated by the Clean Water Act.

Joni Ernst, of Iowa, and Mike Braun, of Indiana, sponsored the Define WOTUS Act, which would prevent a future administration from using the regulatory process to define which wetlands and streams are covered by the landmark act.

The introduced bill excludes intermittent streams and those that flow less than 185 days a year, except during “extreme events” such as drought. The bill also employs vague and perplexing language. It requires wetlands to have a “continuous” connection with a flowing river such that an “ordinary person” would not be able to tell “where one body of water ends and the other begins.”

The EPA’s revised definition was sent to the White House for review on July 12.

Studies and Reports

Lead and Copper Rule
In a soon-to-be-published overhaul of federal lead in drinking water rules, the EPA will prohibit utilities from replacing only the lead service line on the street side of the meter, Bloomberg reports, citing unnamed agency officials.

These partial replacements can exacerbate lead levels in homes during and after construction.

The EPA’s draft revisions of the Lead and Copper Rule have been submitted to the White House for final review before publication, which is expected this summer.

On the Radar

Georgia Coal Ash Program Public Hearing
Georgia is seeking to become the second state to oversee its own regulatory program for the toxic waste produced by coal-fired power plants.

On August 6, the EPA will hold a hearing in Atlanta to listen to public comments about the proposal. The agency aims to approve the state’s application. Oklahoma was the first state granted regulatory authority over coal ash disposal, a delegation of permitting power initiated by the Trump administration.

In context: Testing the Clean Water Act — Coal Ash and Groundwater

Congressional Recess
The House and Senate are on summer break until September 9.

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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