Federal Water Tap, May 28: EPA Issues Draft Standards for New Drinking Water Contaminant

The Rundown

Perchlorate is the first new drinking water contaminant to be regulated by the EPA since the 1990s. A $19 billion disaster relief bill is held up in Congress. The House budget committee commits to a spending increase for the EPA. The Army Corps submits a $778 million Asian carp plan. Two water bills in Congress target infrastructure funding and drinking water monitoring. The CDC plans to study health effects of airborne cyanotoxins in Florida. The EPA publishes its regulatory agenda and recreational water quality standards for two cyanotoxins. NOAA researchers expect a “near-normal” Atlantic hurricane season. And lastly, historically high Mississippi River levels will force the Army Corps to open a rarely used spillway in Louisiana.

“The current flood fight is historic and unprecedented.” — Ricky Boyett, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman. The Army Corps plans to open the Morganza spillway, in Louisiana, on June 2 for just the third time in the flood-control structure’s history. Last opened in 2011, the spillway is akin to a pressure-relief valve for the lower Mississippi River. Opening it will flood farmland but reduce pressure on the levees that protect Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and other communities along the river.

By the Numbers

$19.1 billion: Disaster relief bill that passed the Senate but was held up in the House after at least one representative objected to a quick vote. The bill includes a short-term (four-month) extension of the National Flood Insurance Program. (Congress)

$778 million: Cost of an Army Corps plan to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan. Noisemakers, electric barriers, a “bubble curtain,” and more deterrents will be installed at Brandon Road Lock and Dam, a strategic chokepoint between the Illinois River, where the invasive carp have a fin-hold, and the canals that lead to Lake Michigan. The plan does not call for the most drastic measure: physical separation of the basins. (Associated Press)

News Briefs

New Drinking Water Standard
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a long-awaited draft standard for perchlorate in drinking water.

The standard — 56 parts per billion — was immediately criticized by health groups as being too lenient. They pointed to lower state standards (Massachusetts at 2 ppb) and the agency’s own non-binding health advisory from 2009, which was set at 15 ppb.

The proposal took years to develop and required a court order. The agency said in 2011 that perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel, munitions, and fireworks, ought to be regulated. The agency estimated at that point that up to 16 million people could be exposed to the chemical at levels that could be a health risk. Perchlorate principally interferes with the thyroid.

House Committee Advances Budget Bills
The House Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal year 2020 spending bill that includes a 7.5 percent ($672 million) increase in the EPA budget and a 12 percent increase ($345 million) in the two state revolving funds for water infrastructure.

Water Bills in Congress
Two pieces of notable legislation were introduced last week:

  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) sponsored a bill that allows states to transfer more money between the two state revolving funds. One fund is designated for drinking water projects; the other for sewage and storm water. Increasing the cap on transfers allows states to target their greatest needs, Booker argues. The funds are topped up every year via congressional appropriation and allocated by formula to the states, which administer them.
  • Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the CLEARR Drinking Water Act. The clumsy acronym reflects the bill’s requirement for more reporting and monitoring of drinking water quality. It requires the EPA administrator to issues regulations that outline additional inspections that must take place after a water quality violation. The bill also increases the spending limit for a program that aids disadvantaged communities, from $60 million per year to $300 million per year.

Mining Lease Renewal
The Bureau of Land Management renewed mineral leases in northern Minnesota for a company that is seeking to develop a copper and nickel mine near Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a federally designated wilderness, the Associated Press reports.

Because of concerns about water pollution in the wilderness area, the Obama administration had blocked development of the leases, which are located in Superior National Forest. That decision was reversed under President Trump.

Studies and Reports

Swimming Water Guidelines for Cyanotoxins
The EPA released water quality standards for two cyanotoxins. The standards, which are not legally binding, apply to rivers, lakes, bays and other natural water bodies where people swim.

The standards for microcystin and cylindrospermopsin, which are produced by blue-green algae, are meant to protect swimmers who might ingest some of the toxins. They are based on a child’s exposure.

Florida Cyanotoxins Study
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recruiting fishing guides who work on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee for a study of the health effects of inhaling cyanotoxins, Florida Today reports.

Cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, have flourished in the lake. The study will likely begin next year.

Hurricane Season Forecast
The Atlantic hurricane season, which traditionally begins June 1, will be “near normal” according to NOAA researchers.

What does that mean? Under similar climate conditions as today, seven in 10 modeled hurricane seasons produced between two and four major hurricanes. Major hurricanes are those rated above a category 3.

A reminder: the scale used for rating hurricanes is based on wind speed. Hurricane Florence, which caused extensive flooding in the Carolinas last year, made landfall as a category 1.

NOAA goes into more depth on the 2019 forecast here.

On the Radar

Lead and Copper Rule Revision
Perchlorate: check.

Next: Lead and Copper Rule.

The next big drinking water action for the EPA is publishing draft revisions to rules that govern lead and copper in drinking water. The draft has been delayed for years, but the agency says that it should be made public by July.

The timeline was published in the agency’s regulatory agenda, which federal departments are required to do twice a year.

Other actions given a timeline include:

  • A decision whether to begin drafting a rule to define PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law. (October 2019)
  • A decision whether to start drafting a drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS. (December 2019)
  • Revised definition of the Waters of the United States rule, which outlines the waters protected by the Clean Water Act. (December 2019)
  • Possible revision of Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, which would prevent states from blocking fossil fuel pipelines based on water pollution concerns. (May 2020)

Lake Erie Algae
Heavy spring rains are leading NOAA researchers to forecast a more severe harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie this summer. They expect a bloom that will be “noticeably greater” than in 2018. That means greater than 6 on a 10-point scale. Last year’s bloom rated a 4.

The bloom, which has the potential to produce toxins that harmful to people and animals, usually peaks in late summer. The final forecast will be published on July 11.

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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