Federal Water Tap, January 21: Senate Confirmation Hearing for EPA Nominee
Senate committee holds a confirmation hearing for Andrew Wheeler, who says the shutdown has delayed EPA’s PFAS management plan. A bipartisan bill in the House seeks to list PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under federal environmental law. President Trump addresses the Farm Bureau annual convention and signs a water-infrastructure planning bill. The Defense Department reports on how climate change will affect military bases and operations. The EPA postpones a public hearing on the Waters of the United States proposal. A hearing for a Supreme Court groundwater case is also postponed. And lastly, the Republican chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee promises a climate change hearing.
“Do you all know what ‘prairie potholes’ are? Yes, you do. I don’t, but it sounds bad.” — President Trump speaking at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual convention about his administration’s Waters of the United States rule, which aims to do away with the Obama administration’s proposed definition and reduce the scope of the Clean Water Act. Prairie potholes, which are wetland features in the northern plains that are important migratory bird habitat, would be excluded from protection if they are seasonal, meaning only appearing after rain or snow melt. Farmers have become the sympathetic face of opposition to the Obama-era rule, even though a diminished Clean Water Act will benefit developers and energy companies as well.
By the Numbers
166: Number of pollution cases referred by the EPA to the Justice Department in 2018 for criminal prosecution, a 30-year low. (Associated Press)
$703 million: Grants provided by the Bureau of Reclamation, between 1992 and 2017, to build water reuse projects. (Government Accountability Office)
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee questioned President Trump’s nominee to helm the government’s top air and water regulator.
Andrew Wheeler, second in command at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, became the acting administrator in July when Scott Pruitt resigned after numerous ethics scandals.
Wheeler had already appeared before in the committee, in November 2017, to be confirmed for his current position. With Republican control of the Senate, he will probably get the promotion.
One of the hottest issues before the EPA is drinking water contamination from a class of chemicals known as PFAS. Wheeler said that the agency’s management plan, having been delayed by the partial government shutdown, will be released “in the very near future.”
PFAS Bill Introduced in the House
Republican and Democratic representatives from Michigan introduced a bill that requires the EPA to list all PFAS chemicals, which number in the thousands, as hazardous substances under CERCLA, the federal environmental cleanup statute.
A hazardous substances listing means that the agency could order cleanups and recover costs and that water utilities would have a clearer legal path for filing lawsuits.
Trump Signs Water Infrastructure Bill
President Trump signed the bipartisan Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, which allows cities to include green infrastructure in water-pollution reduction plans and allows them more flexibility in determining which investments to make and when.
The bill codifies an EPA policy put in place in 2012.
In context: New EPA Guidance for Combined Sewers Draws Mixed Reviews
Studies and Reports
Defense Department Climate Change Risk Report
In a report ordered by Congress, the Defense Department reaffirmed that it believes climate change to be a national security issue and it noted that five climate risks are currently affecting its bases and operations.
The report looks at vulnerabilities over the next 20 years. It assesses current and potential impacts from five climate risks for only 79 domestic installations. The risks: flooding, drought, desertification, wildfires, and thawing permafrost.
Though the Defense Department has repeatedly said that climate change is an operational and national security risk, critics said this report did not deliver instructive details. Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, called the report “half-baked.”
“While this climate report acknowledges that nearly all the military installations it studied are vulnerable to major climate change impacts, and provides numerous installation-level examples of those impacts, it fails to even minimally discuss a mitigation plan to address the vulnerabilities,” Smith said in a statement. “The Department of Defense presented no specifics on what is required to ensure operational viability and mission resiliency, and failed to estimate the future costs associated with ensuring these installations remain viable.”
Hurricanes last fall caused billions in damage to two U.S. bases: Tyndall Air Force Base, in Florida, and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina. Neither base was assessed in the report.
John Conger, director of the Center for Climate and Security, noted that the Defense Department did not provide all the information that Congress asked for: namely, a list of the military installations most vulnerable to climate change.
“DoD should make the transition from anecdote to analysis and provide a fuller assessment, as Congress directed,” wrote Conger, a former assistant secretary of defense.
Climate Change and Migration
The U.S. government’s three main foreign affairs departments — Defense Department, State Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development — are not considering in their risk assessments climate change’s potential to spark mass migrations of people.
That’s according to a Government Accountability Office review of department procedures. The GAO recommends that the State Department provide clear guidance for assessing climate risks. The State Department agreed with the recommendation.
A memo from President Obama in 2016 ordered federal agencies to develop plans to address climate threats to national security, including those from migration. President Trump revoked the memo in March 2017, two months after taking office.
On the Radar
EPA WOTUS Meeting Postponed
Because of the government shutdown, the EPA postponed a January 23 meeting in Kansas City, Kansas to discuss the agency’s proposal to reduce the scope of the Clean Water Act.
The meeting will be rescheduled once government funding is settled.
Senate Ag Hearing on Climate Change
The Senate Agriculture Committee plans to hold a hearing on how climate change affects farming, DTN Progressive Farmer reports.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), the committee chair, told reporters about his plans during the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting.
Mississippi v. Tennessee Groundwater Hearing Postponed
An evidentiary hearing that was scheduled for January 15 in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court groundwater rights lawsuits has been postponed for four months because a key witness had a medical issue.
The hearing will now be held from May 20 through May 24.
Mississippi claims that Tennessee, by pumping more than it should, is stealing its groundwater. The state seeks $615 million in damages.
The lawsuit is the first time the Supreme Court has considered groundwater that crosses state borders.
In context: Mississippi’s Claim That Tennessee Is Stealing Groundwater Is a Supreme Court First
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.
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
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