Federal Water Tap, February 6: EPA Vetoes Pebble Mine in Alaska

The Rundown

  • The EPA prohibits mining the Pebble deposit in the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed.
  • The EPA finalizes guidance for balancing sewage system improvements with financial burdens to residential water bills.
  • Republicans take aim at the Biden administration’s definition of the scope of the Clean Water Act.
  • The GAO recommends the TVA develop a more detailed climate resilience plan for its electricity-generating assets.
  • Domestic production of salt, a water pollutant, remained steady in 2022.

And lastly, the House kicks off the 118th Congress with a raft of hearings.

“I was given a copy of a speech that I made about 30 years ago, saying we need an infrastructure bill to deal with water. I’m not joking. I had forgotten that they just — they dug it up for me. But the point is: We’ve been needing this for a long time. This is not new.” — President Joe Biden speaking in Philadelphia in support of water infrastructure investments and removing lead pipes.

By the Numbers

42 Million Tons: Domestic salt production in 2022, according to U.S. Geological Survey figures. The number is roughly unchanged from 2021. Including imports, about 42 percent of salt consumption in the U.S. is for deicing roads. This has resulted in rising salinity levels for rivers, lakes, and groundwater, especially in urban areas.

In context: Road Salt, a Stealthy Pollutant, Is Damaging Michigan Waters

News Briefs

Financial Assessments for Wastewater Fixes
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized new guidelines for fixing failing sewage systems in a timely manner without adding too great a financial burden on low-income communities.

The Financial Capability Assessment describes a community’s capacity to bear the costs of preventing sewage pollution of waterways. Regulators reference it when setting timelines for big corrective projects like reducing combined sewer overflows. The assessment is not, as it is sometimes mistaken, intended to define “affordable” water for a household.

When the EPA orders communities to clean up sewer overflows, the agency sets a timetable for compliance, sometimes lasting decades. Current guidance dates to 1997 and focuses on financial impacts compared to median household income. That method has been criticized for neglecting the impact on a community’s poorest residents.

The revised guidelines consider the impact of rate increases at the 20th percentile of earners. It allows utilities to consider the total cost of water, including drinking water and stormwater.

The revision also requires utilities to show that they have exhausted their options for providing assistance to low-income customers. And it suggests a cleanup timeline of 20 years for projects with high financial impact.

Axing the Pebble Deposit
The EPA officially blocked a mining project in the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, determining that disposal of mine waste and dredged soil and the loss of wetlands poses too great a risk to one of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fisheries, located downstream.

The Pebble deposit of copper, gold, and molybdenum has been in dispute for more than a decade.

Waters of the United States
Republicans in the House and Senate introduced a resolution to overturn the Biden administration’s revised definition of the scope of the Clean Water Act.

The mechanism for overturning the rulemaking is the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress, under certain circumstances, to disapprove agency rules.

There is a major roadblock. The Senate, under Democratic control, would also need to approve the resolution. And President Biden would need to sign it.

Studies and Reports

Climate Risk for the TVA
A government watchdog recommends that the Tennessee Valley Authority, a public power provider established by Congress, develop a more detailed plan to reduce climate change risks that could curtail its electrical output.

“Because the TVA is the nation’s largest public power provider, potential climate change effects on TVA’s infrastructure and operations could have significant economic and social consequences,” the report states.

The TVA operates hydropower dams, nuclear stations, and coal-fired power plants for 10 million electric customers in the Southeast. It owns more than 16,000 miles of transmission lines. Since 2010 it has been forced to reduce nuclear generation because of overheated rivers and replace substation equipment due to flooding.

The Government Accountability Office report suggests that the TVA assess the vulnerability of its assets in order to prioritize climate resilience investments.

On the Radar

State of the Union Speech
President Joe Biden will opine on the strength of the union on February 7 at 9 p.m. Eastern. Expect to hear about infrastructure and climate.

House Hearings
The 118th Congress begins with Republican control of the House. Hearings next week feature a shift in tone.

  • On February 8, a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee will discuss the scope of the Clean Water Act.
  • On February 8, the House Natural Resources Committee will discuss increasing domestic energy and mineral production.
  • On February 9, a House Natural Resources subcommittee will hold a hearing on critical minerals acquired from foreign countries.

EPA Science Advisory Board Nominations
The EPA is seeking nominations for experts to serve on the Science Advisory Board, which critiques the scientific basis of the agency’s rulemakings.

Nominations are due March 2, 2023. Details are in the above link.

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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