Federal Water Tap, September 30: Trump Administration Escalates Environmental Showdown with California

The Rundown

EPA letter targets California’s oversight of water programs. The Air Force agrees to pay a portion of a Massachusetts water utility’s PFAS treatment costs. Congress moves on water legislation, including harmful algal blooms, aquifer storage, and reservoir operations. The Senate’s 2020 budget bill includes a 2 percent increase for the EPA and $25 million for the agency’s PFAS response. The USDA announces another round of rural water and sewer infrastructure funding. The DOE reviews radioactive waste storage in New Mexico. USAID names a new global water coordinator. A federal health agency names seven sites for a national PFAS health study. And lastly, the U.S. Geological Survey finds saltwater in Miami-Dade County moving farther inland underground, putting more of the region’s drinking water aquifer at risk, and it finds oilfield wastewater disposal polluting aquifers in California’s Kern County.

“We do not have the data necessary to evaluate the cleanups that would be required by this bill.” — Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administrator, objecting to a House bill that requires the agency to designate all PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the federal law that guides Superfund cleanups.

By the Numbers

$144 million: Loans and grants to rural communities for drinking water and sewer projects. Headland, Alabama, will receive a $592,000 loan to replace old water meters. Potsdam, New York, will receive $5.5 million in grants and loans to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant and install new sewer lines. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

$1.3 million: Funding that the Air Force will provide Westfield, Massachusetts for PFAS treatment. The town’s drinking water was contaminated by firefighting foam used at Barnes Air National Guard Base. The Air Force already agreed to give the Suffolk County Water Authority, on Long Island, $4 million for PFAS treatment. (MassLive)

$6 million: Research funding for eight institutions to study PFAS in landfills and sewage sludge. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

In context: EPA Watchdog Flags Unregulated Pollutants in Treated Sewage Sludge

News Briefs

EPA Raises Water Concerns with California
Citing drinking water contaminants, sewage overflows in San Francisco, and unsanitary conditions due to homelessness, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned in a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, that the state was failing to implement federal clean water and drinking water laws.

The letter, from Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administrator, is the latest front in an ongoing political showdown between the left-leaning state and the Trump administration over environmental regulations and their enforcement. That showdown ranges from air quality standards and vehicle emissions to wetlands protections.

City and state officials questioned the links the agency tried to make between homelessness and water quality. A former EPA drinking water official who retired in 2014 called it “remarkably silly.”

Asked whether the letter was an escalation in the administration’s battle with the state, a senior agency official dodged the question. “The letter speaks for itself,” the official told reporters on a conference call.

The letter gives the state 30 days to respond with a plan for addressing the issues.

Water Bills in Congress

  • The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal year 2020 budget bill for the Interior Department and EPA.

    The Interior budget of $13.7 billion is nearly 17 percent higher than the Trump administration’s proposal.

    The EPA budget of just over $9 billion is nearly 2 percent higher than last year’s enacted level and some 45 percent higher than the Trump administration’s budget proposal.

    The budget bill includes $25 million earmarked for PFAS response: $20 million for grants to communities to assist with cleanup, $4 million for health studies, and $1 million for agency actions.

  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee, meanwhile, approved 13 PFAS-related bills, including a measure to require the EPA to set a national drinking water standard for total PFAS, not just for PFOA and PFOS, the two most-studied chemicals. The next step is consideration by the full House.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was busy as well, approving a handful of water-related bills. Among them: authorizing construction of a rural water system in eastern Montana and western North Dakota, allowing Bureau of Reclamation facilities to transport water for aquifer recharge, allowing Reclamation reservoirs to be used for pumped storage projects, and greenlighting a pilot project to adapt the management of Reclamation reservoirs to a changing climate by adjusting the “rule curves” that guide water releases.
  • The House passed the South Florida Clean Coastal Waters Act, a bill that requires a federal interagency task force to assess the causes of harmful algal blooms in that part of the state and submit to Congress a plan for controlling and reducing them.

USAID Water Coordinator
The U.S. Agency for International Development named Jennifer Mack the new global water coordinator, with the responsibility for implementing the agency’s water and sanitation strategy.

Mack is currently the deputy assistant to the administrator in the Bureau of Food Security, where she works on food issues.

John Oldfield, principal with Global Water 2020, a group that advocates for water, sanitation, and hygiene in U.S. foreign policy, said he has “high hopes” for Mack’s tenure.

“She knows U.S. government, and how things work,” Oldfield told Circle of Blue. “She knows how partnerships work.”

Desalination Research Hub
The Department of Energy awarded a desalination research center to the National Alliance for Water Innovation, a consortium of national laboratories, universities, and industry groups.

The center will look for inexpensive, energy-efficient technologies to treat salt water, brackish water, and wastewater from the oil and gas industry.

Studies and Reports

Oil Wastewater Taints California Groundwater
Underground and above-ground disposal of salty wastewater from oil production in California has worsened water quality in an aquifer in Kern County that could be used as a drinking water source, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study.

The study looked at water quality impacts of so-called “produced” water. Some of the produced water is dumped into above-ground pits. This resulted in saltier water in the shallow alluvial aquifer, according to the study.

Underground disposal, via injection wells, was “more subtle,” the researchers wrote, owing to variations in the deeper geology. Still, an increase in salt levels was noticeable when compared with data from the 1980s and before.

In context: Wastewater in California’s Oilfields

Saltwater Intrusion in Miami-Dade County
Underground salt water continues to move farther inland in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, putting drinking water supplies at risk, according to new U.S. Geological Survey mapping.

The leading edge in one section of the saltwater layer moved inland at a pace of 102 meters per year between 2014 and 2018.

The freshwater aquifer in the area is called the Biscayne. Salt water moves inland because of rising seas and groundwater pumping that lowers the level of fresh water. Because it is less dense, freshwater sits on top of the saltwater wedge, which is thickest near the coast and thinner inland.

The study mapped the salt water where it met the base of the freshwater layer.

PFAS Study Sites Selected
A federal health agency selected the research partners for a national study of PFAS exposure and health outcomes. The study will examine individuals at seven sites. Those sites are in the states of California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

The study will assess the relationship between PFAS exposure and certain diseases, including immune response, lipid metabolism, kidney function, thyroid disease, liver disease, and diabetes. Cancer is not an outcome that will be assessed because the sample size of 8,000 people total is too small to draw those conclusions.

On the Radar

Radioactive Waste Storage Assessment
The EPA will assess whether a radioactive waste disposal facility in southeastern New Mexico is meeting environmental protection standards.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad, stores protective gear, sludge, rags, and other contaminated garbage from defense-related activities. Disposal regulations limit radioactivity in nearby groundwater.

The Department of Energy submits compliance paperwork that the EPA must certify, The EPA is seeking public comment on the DOE’s review application. Email comments to a-and-r-Docket@epa.gov with EPA-HQ-OAR-2019-0534 in the subject line.

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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