Federal Water Tap, November 15: Justice Department Opens EJ Investigation of Sewage Pollution in Alabama

The Rundown

  • Justice Department investigators will scrutinize state and local health agencies in an Alabama county notorious for sewage failures.
  • The EPA outlines a $627 million plan to remedy sewage pollution in the Tijuana River.
  • The EPA grants the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe the authority to set water quality standards for rivers and lakes on its northern Minnesota reservation.
  • The USGS measures nutrient and sediment flows from Illinois rivers into the Mississippi River watershed and releases a report on nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay.
  • An expert review panel will discuss the scientific basis for the EPA’s regulation of PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

And lastly, President Biden is expected to sign the infrastructure bill this week.

“Corruption is basically development in reverse. It harms long-term economic development, scares away private sector investment, deepens inequality, and even harms the environment as a result of illicit logging, fishing, and polluting.” — Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, speaking at Georgetown University on November 4.

By the Numbers

$5 Million: Annual funding under a proposal in Congress to create a program for studying the saline lakes of the Great Basin and the bird populations that depend on them. The program would be carried out by the U.S. Geological Survey.

News Briefs

Sewage Pollution Investigation in Alabama
The Justice Department announced that it will open an environmental justice investigation into sewage system failures and government oversight in Alabama.

The investigation centers on whether two agencies — the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County Health Department — have operated wastewater regulatory programs in a manner that discriminates against Black residents living in rural Lowndes County.

Lowndes County, a high-poverty country in central Alabama, has made headlines for at least six years due to faulty septic and municipal sewage systems that led to hookworm infections.

Catherine Flowers, a clean water advocate raised in Lowndes County who won a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 2020, is vice chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

In context: Septic Infrastructure in the United States

Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Bill
A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would fix a legal loophole that prevents victims of water contamination from having their day in court.

The drinking water at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, was contaminated with the solvents TCE and PCE, plus benzene, and other industrial chemicals from 1953 until 1987. Veterans, their families, and workers who were exposed to the contaminants and later developed cancers and other health problems have sought compensation.

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act will allow affected individuals to bring suit in federal court.

In context: Background on Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune

Studies and Reports

Tijuana River Cleanup Plan
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlined a plan to stem the flow of trash and untreated sewage from Mexico that foul the Tijuana River and Pacific Ocean.

The capital cost of the plan is $627 million, which includes new waste treatment plants and expanded capacity at an existing plant. There is also money for pipelines to convey water to and from the plants, and for booms to intercept trash in the river. Annual operating costs for the plan at full buildout would amount to $26 million.

Congress appropriated $300 million for the project already, and the projects can be built in stages until full funding is available. With the plan announcement, the EPA is beginning an environmental review.

Nutrients and Sediment from Illinois Rivers
The U.S. Geological Survey collected five years of data on nutrient and sediment flows in eight major Illinois rivers in the Mississippi River watershed.

The Illinois River had the highest load, due in large part because it’s the biggest watershed. The highest load per square kilometer came from the Vermilion River.

Illinois is one of the largest contributors of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Mississippi and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico, where the nutrients result in an annual low-oxygen dead zone.

Chesapeake Bay Nitrogen Report
The U.S. Geological Survey also published a comprehensive assessment of how excess nitrogen has altered the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

Not only a scientific compendium, the report is also a history lesson. It “provides a unique synthesis of the story of nitrogen since early European settlement, with a particular focus on the past and future changes in the nitrogen cycle in the Chesapeake Bay watershed for the 100-year time period from 1950 to 2050.”

On the Radar

Tribal Water Quality Standards
The EPA says that the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe has met the requirements to establish its own water quality standards for rivers and lakes. The Leech Lake Band has an 864,158-acre reservation in northern Minnesota.

Once the tribe sets standards, they will have to be approved by the EPA.

PFAS Review Meeting
An expert review panel will hold a series of four public meetings to discuss the scientific basis for the EPA’s regulation of PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

In February, the agency made a final decision to regulate PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. The panel will review health effects data that informs the regulatory process. It will also evaluate how the EPA might consider the health risks of exposure to multiple PFAS compounds instead of considering them individually.

The panel is being convened under the auspices of the Scientific Advisory Board, which advises the agency on science matters. The first meeting is December 1, from noon to 5:00 p.m. Eastern. Additional meetings will take place on January 4, 6, and 7.

Review panel members are mostly academics.

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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