GAO audit finds that federal agencies need more timely reporting on environmental justice activities. EPA political appointees spearheaded water pollution campaign against California, the New York Times reports. A Senate bill encourages voluntary water system partnerships. Academic researchers look at Legionella bacteria in Flint plumbing. The USDA announces $201 million in rural water infrastructure funding. Global average temperatures last month tied a record set in 2015 for hottest September. And lastly, the Defense Department’s internal watchdog will review the use of toxic PFAS compounds at military sites.
“It is unacceptable that the Defense Department put the health of Pennsylvania families at risk with these chemicals, whether it was intended or unintended. Every American has a right to clean drinking water. The federal government created this health crisis and it is important that the government is starting to take responsibility. I’m happy to see that the Inspector General will be further reviewing this issue and look forward to seeing their report.” — Statement from Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) on the Defense Department’s internal watchdog announcing that it will review the military’s PFAS use.
By the Numbers
$201 million: Grant and loan funding to rural communities for water, sewer, and drainage system improvements. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
#1: The global average land and ocean temperature last month tied September 2015 for the hottest September in 140-years of record keeping. The 10 warmest September have occurred since 2005. (NOAA)
EPA v. California
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s warning to California last month about water pollution linked to homelessness and sewage overflows was written by political appointees in Washington over the objections of regional staff in California, the New York Times reports.
The Trump administration and the Democratic leadership of California have squabbled over air and water regulation.
Water Partnerships Bill
A bill introduced in the Senate provides incentives for utilities that are violating federal drinking water rules to collaborate with better managed neighbors to avoid penalties and other enforcement actions.
The bill provides a 180-day exemption from federal enforcement if the utility is working to develop a partnership. The exemption extends to three years once the partnership is in place and work is being done to correct the failure. The exemption does not include immediate public health threats.
Partnerships could be expressed through sharing services, personnel, or purchasing contracts. Deeper forms of integration include merging systems.
The bill was introduced by Sens. Mike Braun (R-IN) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). It is endorsed by lobby groups that represent large water utilities, rural agencies, and publicly traded water companies.
Studies and Reports
Environmental Justice Progress Hard to Measure
Federal agencies have supported the idea of reducing the disproportionate burden of pollution on poor and minority communities. But measuring improvements is difficult because of inadequate reporting and tracking, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
An executive order in 1994 ordered 11 federal agencies to commit to addressing unequal pollution, a concept known as environmental justice. In 2011, an additional five agencies joined with the original group to expand reporting and monitoring.
However, the number of agencies filing annual progress reports fell from 14 in 2012 to four in 2017.
The GAO recommended that agencies update their environmental justice strategic plans and file annual reports. It also asked the EPA, as chair of a working group on the topic, publish guidelines for the other agencies to follow.
Legionella in Flint
Academic researchers found “reasonable evidence” that Legionella bacteria were able to grow in plumbing served by the Flint water system. The bacteria cause Legionnaires’ disease, a sometimes deadly illness that resembles pneumonia.
The city experienced two outbreaks in 2014-15 after switching its water source to the Flint River and not properly treating the water to prevent pipe corrosion. The official number of deaths from those outbreaks is 12, but there is evidence that the true number is several times higher.
Researchers took water samples from various buildings connected to the Flint water system (a hospital, a large public buildings, and residences) and compared the Legionella strains in those water samples to strains isolated from Legionnaires’ disease patients in Flint. The samples were taken in 2016, after Flint switched back to water from Detroit’s system. Water from neighboring areas that were never served by Flint were used as a control.
The study was published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a monthly peer-reviewed journal overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On the Radar
On October 22, the House Agriculture Committee holds a hearing on the conservation benefits of precision agriculture.
On October 23, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discusses the Pebble Mine project, a proposed copper, gold, and molybdenum development in Alaska that the Trump administration revived.
Watchdog To Review Defense Department PFAS Use
The Defense Department’s internal watchdog will review the use of toxic PFAS compounds at military sites. The scope of the review has not been defined.
A bipartisan congressional task force requested the review in July. One of the first actions of Mark Esper, the Defense secretary, after he was confirmed this summer was to launch his own PFAS task force.
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