Federal Water Tap, May 18: EPA Science Advisers Recommend Lead and Copper Rule Changes
The EPA’s science advisers suggest strengthening a proposed rule to address lead in drinking water. The EPA decides not to regulate perchlorate in drinking water. The House passes Covid-19 emergency relief with funding for water utility bills. Senate Democrats introduce a bill to monitor pollution in poor and minority communities during the Covid-19 crisis while House Democrats unveil a bill to block the Trump administration’s interpretation of the Clean Water Act. The Trump administration moves to block a Washington state law regulating crude oil by rail. The GAO reports on the Department of Energy’s $505 billion in environmental cleanup liabilities. The Bureau of Reclamation will evaluate the costs and benefits of raising the height of a California dam. And lastly, NOAA issues the first Lake Erie algal forecast of the summer, anticipating a smaller bloom than last year.
“Over seventy years of nuclear weapons production and energy research by the federal government has generated large amounts of radioactive and hazardous waste, spent nuclear fuel, uranium mill tailings, and contaminated soil and groundwater at hundreds of sites across the country. Even after active environmental remediation of these sites is completed, few sites will be cleaned up to the point that they can be released for unrestricted human access. Rather, many sites will require surveillance and maintenance to ensure the continued protection of human health and the environment for as long as contamination remains — in many cases, hundreds or thousands of years into the future.” — Excerpt from a Government Accountability Office report on the contaminated sites that are overseen by the Department of Energy. According to the department, groundwater cleanup continues long after a site’s remediation is officially completed, owing to the pervasiveness of groundwater pollution.
By the Numbers
$1.5 billion: Funding in the Heroes Act for assistance to water utilities that provide discounts to economically vulnerable customers during the Covid-19 crisis. (House of Representatives)
$505 billion: Environmental cleanup liabilities at contaminated sites overseen by the Department of Energy. (GAO)
House Passes Heroes Act
In their latest proposal to deal with the massive personal financial fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, House Democrats signaled their intent to channel more assistance to the poorest and most economically vulnerable Americans, and to keep their water running at a time when hygiene has life and death consequences.
The $3 trillion Heroes Act, which the House passed on Friday night, is a lengthy bill that would double the federal government’s current emergency spending to respond to a rampant virus and record-breaking unemployment that now stands at 14.7 percent — and is likely to rise.
Senate Republicans are not supporting the proposal, wanting to see how current emergency funding is used before authorizing additional money.
For water, the act incorporates policy proposals that were already on Democrats’ wish list.
Provisions in the act would allocate $1.5 billion to help low-income residents pay their water bills.
The Heroes Act would funnel this money to utilities via states and tribes. Instead of using the administrative apparatus of LIHEAP, an existing energy bill aid program that operates via customer applications, the money would go to utilities to offset the cost of providing bill discounts.
To be eligible for this money, utilities would have to agree to several restrictions: they would not shut off water to homes during the emergency period, they would reconnect water service to homes that are currently disconnected, and they would not charge late fees during the emergency period. States like California, Michigan, and New Hampshire have already ordered some of these actions, but there is no nationwide requirement.
EPA to Reject Perchlorate Regulation
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will not regulate perchlorate in drinking water, the New York Times reports, citing conversations with two agency officials.
The decision not to set limits for the chemical found in fireworks and explosives has not been made public. The EPA, which is under a court order to finalize the regulation, says it will make its official announcement in June.
The Obama administration determined in 2011 that the chemical should be regulated in drinking water. At the time, the EPA estimated that perchlorate was found in the drinking water of between 5 million and 16 million residents.
In a fact sheet posted online last week the agency claims that state and local actions have worked to reduce perchlorate levels in drinking water, lessening the need for national rules. There is “infrequent occurrence of perchlorate at the levels of public health concern,” the agency says.
Trump Administration Blocks Washington State Oil-By-Rail Law
The federal agency that oversees transportation of hazardous materials moved to strike down Washington state’s law to regulate oil deliveries by rail.
The states of Montana and North Dakota asked the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to use its authority to review the law, arguing that limits on volatile gases in oil would effectively prohibit the export of Bakken crude to ports in the Pacific Northwest. The Bakken formation lies beneath the two states.
A train carrying Bakken crude derailed on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge in June 2016.
Environmental Justice and Covid-19 Bill
Democratic senators introduced a bill that would provide $50 million in grants to track pollution in poor and minority communities during the Covid-19 crisis.
A companion bill was introduced in the House and included in the Heroes Act.
Blocking Clean Water Act Revision
House Democrats introduced a bill that would block the Trump administration’s rule that diminished the scope of the Clean Water Act. It also would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to rewrite their regulations.
The administration finalized its rule in April.
Studies and Reports
Lead and Copper Rule Criticism
The EPA should simplify and strengthen its proposed changes to federal rules for lead in drinking water, according to a draft critique by the agency’s science advisers.
The EPA proposed setting a “trigger level” of 10 parts per billion of lead that would require water utilities to take a closer look at their water chemistry so that lead pipes are not corroding. The trigger level would complement an existing “action level” at 15 parts per billion.
In its report, the Science Advisory Board said that the trigger level would provide more confusion than clarity. Plus, neither the trigger level nor the action level is supported by science as protecting children from the harm of lead, the board said.
The better option, according to the board, is to simply lower the action level to 10 parts per billion and scrap the trigger level.
The advisers applauded the proposal’s intent to improve sampling methods, but they said that the final rules need to be clearer on this point.
On the Radar
On May 20, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing on the oversight of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Lake Erie Algal Forecast
The annual Lake Erie algal bloom is expected to be less severe than in 2019.
Researchers at NOAA and Heidelberg University say that the severity of the bloom, which peaks in August and September, is likely to be between 2 and 4 on a 10-point scale. Last year rated a 7.5.
At this point, there is much uncertainty in the forecast. If heavy rains wash more phosphorus into the Maumee River, the severity could be worse. The river feeds the lake’s shallow western basin, where the blooms are most concentrated.
California Dam Raising Proposal
The Bureau of Reclamation says that it will assess the costs and benefits of raising B.F. Sisk Dam by 10 feet in order to store more water in San Luis Reservoir, one of the largest in California.
Raising the dam could increase storage capacity by a little less than 6 percent. That is equal to 120,000 acre-feet.
Reclamation is already assessing modification that would protect the dam against earthquakes.
Public comments on the scope of the study are being accepted through June 15.
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.
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
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