Federal Water Tap, March 16: Senate Democrats Propose $20 Billion to Respond to PFAS Contamination of Drinking Water and Groundwater

The Rundown

Democrats introduce a bill to aid utilities with the cost of removing PFAS chemicals from drinking water. Democrats also call on utilities not to shut off water service to customers during the coronavirus outbreak. The House Natural Resources Committee advances four water bills. The GAO investigates abandoned hardrock mines. Federal agencies will host a webinar on California’s drought outlook. A bipartisan bill would permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The EPA publishes survey questions for Denver lead filter program. The three months ending in February were the second warmest such period on record globally. And lastly, public comments for the Columbia River dam operations review are moved to teleconferences because of virus concerns.

“Access to clean water is a basic human right at all times, but any action that restricts families’ access to water during the current coronavirus outbreak would be reckless in the extreme.” — Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) in a statement requesting that utilities not shut off water during the coronavirus emergency.

“This unbiased report underscores that it is past time to update our antiquated hardrock mining laws. It’s simply outrageous – mining companies have stripped gold, silver and other valuable minerals from our public lands without paying a dime for the privilege for nearly 150 years, and federal taxpayers get stuck footing the bill for billions in cleanup costs. Meanwhile, these mines poison our waterways, our land, and our communities.” — Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) in a statement following the publication of a GAO report on abandoned hardrock mines.

By the Numbers

22,500: Abandoned hardrock mining features — such as tunnels or waste piles — in the United States that potentially pose an environmental hazard. (GAO)

$1.5 million: Funding for a review of Plan 2014, the document approved four years ago that allowed Lake Ontario levels to fluctuate within a wider range. Due to unusually wet conditions in recent years, shoreline flooding along the lake has been a serious problem for property owners. (International Joint Commission)

#2: The three months between December 2019 and February 2020 were the second warmest such period in the historical record, which dates to 1880. Hot spots included Antarctica, Australia, Europe, and Russia. (NOAA)

News Briefs

Senate Democrats proposed big bucks to assist municipal drinking water systems remove PFAS chemicals from their supplies.

The PFAS Testing and Treatment Act would provide grants worth $20 billion over ten years for PFAS treatment. The funds will be allocated by the EPA administrator in rough proportion to the extent of PFAS contamination in each state.

Half of the money would be directed towards removing the chemicals from drinking water supplied by utilities and private wells. The other half would be targeted at cleaning up contaminated groundwater.

In context: Who Pays? PFAS Lawsuits, Legislation Raise Question of Pollution Liability

Calls to Suspend Water Shutoff
Democrats in Congress also called on water utilities to stop disconnecting water service during the coronavirus emergency.

Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) led the charge, asking water utilities not to shut off water for public and personal health reasons. Hand washing is a first line of defense against the virus, health experts say.

Later in the week, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) expanded that request. She sent a letter to representatives of water, electric, and telecoms trade associations that asked them to persuade their utility members not to turn off vital services for nonpayment in the coming weeks and months.

“Given the unprecedented challenges people are facing as well as the need for people to access critical services from home in order to stem this crisis, shutting off power, water, or communications services right now just because someone missed a payment is potentially dangerous,” Harris wrote. “It could push individuals to not follow recommended guidelines from public health professionals and further exacerbate this crisis, which would endanger public safety.”

In context: As Cities Suspend Shutoffs, Water Access and Hygiene at Front of Coronavirus Response

Great American Outdoors Act
Democrats and Republicans in the Senate introduced the Great American Outdoors Act, which would permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The bill would provide $900 million of permanent funding each year for local parks and land conservation. The money for the fund comes not from taxpayers, but from royalties from offshore oil and gas production.

The bill also offers $9.5 billion over ten years to address maintenance backlogs at national parks.

House Committee Advances Water Bills
The House Natural Resources Committee approved four water bills and sent them to the full House for consideration.

Those bills include:

  • Water Recycling Investment and Improvement Act, which would authorize a $500 million grant program for water reuse.
  • Desalination Development Act, which would establish a 25 percent federal cost-share for ocean or brackish water desalination demonstration projects in the western states.
  • SAVE Water Resources Act, which would create a fund for water storage and reuse projects. The fund would be seeded with $300 million annually. The bill also directs the Interior Department to complete feasibility studies as soon as possible for four reservoir storage projects in California.
  • Western Water Security Act, which would expand funding for groundwater recharge, drought response, desalination, and acquiring water to maintain and revive rivers.

Studies and Reports

EPA Studies Lead Filters in Denver
Last year, the EPA allowed Denver’s water utility to proceed with a three-pronged approach to reducing lead levels in drinking water.

One of those prongs is a program to provide pitcher filters to homes with suspected lead service lines. Residents are supposed to use the filters until the lead pipes are replaced.

A requirement of the program is to evaluate whether residents are properly using the products. The EPA published a sample survey that will be distributed to as many as 20,000 households each year.

Public comments on the survey are being accepted through May 11. Submit them via www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-R08-OW-2019-0404.

PFAS Regulatory Determination
Last month, the EPA announced that it would regulate the chemicals PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. They are the two most-studied of the thousands of toxic, manmade PFAS compounds.

The agency has formalized that move by publishing it in the Federal Register. Publication in the government’s official logbook initiates a public comment period that ends on May 11.

Submit comments via www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2019-0583.

Along with the two PFAS chemicals that will be regulated, the EPA said it will not limit six other drinking water contaminants that it had been tracking.

The Safe Drinking Water Act requires the agency to make these yes-no determinations every five years for at least five unregulated contaminants.

Abandoned Hardrock Mines
Based on figures provided by federal agencies, the Government Accountability Office estimates that some 22,500 abandoned mine features – such as waste piles or tunnels – pose a potential environmental hazard. Three times as many features are a potential physical danger from collapse.

In the decade ending in 2017, federal agencies spent about $287 million annually to minimize physical and environmental risks from these mines, the report states. Little more than a third of that cost was reimbursed by former mine owners or other private parties.

Abandoned mines leach acidic water and heavy metals into creeks and aquifers.

Concerns about how federal statutes interpret legal liability for pollution have hindered cleanup efforts by states and third parties, according to the report.

On the Radar

Columbia River Dam Operations Comment Period
Because of the coronavirus, federal agencies will be using teleconference and phone messages to collect public comments on an environmental impact statement on Columbia River dam operations.

There will be six teleconference comment sessions, starting March 17. Dial-in information is included in the link above.

Public comments are also being gathered online at comments.crso.info.

California Drought Outlook
On March 23, federal agencies will hold a public teleconference to discuss drought conditions in California and Nevada.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly half of California is in moderate drought, the least severe ranking on the four-point scale.

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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