Federal Water Tap, July 29: Defense Department Announces PFAS Task Force

The Rundown

The new defense secretary’s initial action is to establish a task force to address toxic PFAS chemicals. Congress acts on a Florida harmful algal bloom bill and an energy-water bill, while representatives introduce legislation on water infrastructure investment, the Great Lakes, fracking chemicals, and sewage pollution on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Justice Department drafts a consent decree with Duke Energy over a 2014 coal ash spill into the Dan River. And lastly, NOAA seeks to define a harmful algal bloom of “national significance.”

“The Department is committed to taking a strong and proactive stance to address the effects arising out of any releases of these substances from all defense activities including the National Guard and Reserves. We must approach the problem in an aggressive and holistic way, ensuring a coordinated DOD-wide approach to the issue.” — Mark Esper, the new defense secretary, in a memo that established an interagency task force on PFAS chemicals. The task force will be chaired by the Defense Department and focus on health, cleanup standards, and alternatives to firefighting foams that use toxic chemicals. The task force will report back in six months.

Esper, who was sworn in last week, has stated that the Defense Department must not shy away from widespread contamination at its bases. “This is an issue,” Esper said at his Senate confirmation hearing on July 16. “We need to own it.” News reports earlier this year suggested that the department was advocating within the administration for less strict cleanup standards.

By the Numbers

546: Number of coal-fired power units retired in the United States between 2010 and 2019. The trends have shifted in that time. Coal units retired in the last four years tended to be younger and larger than those that were decommissioned earlier in the decade. (Energy Information Administration)

News Briefs

Water Investment Bill
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the latest official to propose big bucks for water infrastructure.

The Water Justice Act, which has a companion bill in the House, puts forward $250 billion for a number of programs, including lead plumbing replacement, water bill assistance to low-income households, and water recycling programs. The money would be allocated to the Environmental Protection Agency as emergency supplemental funding.

Other Water Bills in Congress
Sen. Harris’s proposal was the highlight of the week. But, in a busy interval before summer recess next month, representatives introduced or acted on a number of other bills.

  • The House Science Committee advanced the South Florida Clean Coastal Waters Act, a bill that requires a federal task force to draft a plan for reducing harmful algal blooms in that part of the state.
  • The House passed the Energy and Water Research Integration Act, a bill that requires the Department of Energy to draft a plan for considering water use in energy research and development.
  • Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) introduced the FRAC Act, which requires energy companies to disclose the chemicals and volumes they inject underground in the hydraulic fracturing process. The bill is part of a package aimed at tighter environmental regulation of the oil and gas industry. The other bills address stormwater runoff, air pollution, and hazardous site cleanup.
  • Bipartisan legislation was introduced in both chambers to reauthorize the federal government’s foremost program for investing in Great Lakes ecosystems. The bill increases authorized spending on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to $475 million, up from $300 million currently.
  • A group of southern California lawmakers offered proposals to curb sewage pollution in the Tijuana River. Their bills increase funding for the EPA’s border infrastructure program (by $750 million over five years) and increase capital allocation to the North American Development Bank by $1.5 billion, funding that would be designated for infrastructure.

Coal Ash Spill Settlement
Duke Energy agreed to undertake environmental restoration projects in the Dan River basin to compensate for a 2014 coal ash spill in the watershed. Projects include removing a defunct dam in order to improve upstream fish migration, land conservation, and public fishing facilities.

The consent decree was signed by the Justice Department, and the governments of North Carolina and Virginia.

Studies and Reports

Climate Change and Crop Insurance
The cost to the federal government of crop insurance will increase for corn and soybeans in a warming climate, according to modeling from U.S. Department of Agriculture economists. The effect for winter wheat is much less pronounced.

The cost increase depends on the magnitude of warming. High-emissions scenarios result in higher costs — $750 million annually for corn and $1.3 billion for soybeans — even as acreage declines in areas in which it will be riskier to grow the two staple crops.

On the Radar

Defining Harmful Algal Blooms
NOAA is beginning the process of defining a harmful algal bloom of “national significance.”

Legislation passed by Congress in 2017 allows NOAA to provide matching funds to states in the event of such an outbreak. But first, the term needs structure.

This process of policy definition applies only to blooms in coastal and marine waters. Freshwater blooms will be addressed later.

Public comments are being accepted through September 9. Send them to nccos.eventsofsignificance@noaa.gov with the subject line “HAB and hypoxia event of national significance.”

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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