Federal Water Tap, September 11: EPA Slow to Intervene When Lead Found In Michigan City’s Drinking Water, Watchdog Says

The Rundown

  • The EPA’s internal watchdog assesses the agency’s response to high lead levels in a Michigan city’s drinking water.
  • NOAA scientists review last year’s changes in the planet’s climate systems.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey outlines a research program for freshwater mussels in the U.S.
  • EPA tentatively agrees on a timeline for regulating water pollution from ships.
  • The GAO documents environmental damage from border wall construction.

And lastly, a Senate committee holds a hearing on water and wastewater investments in the infrastructure bill.

“As we look to preserve safety, reliability, and affordability of drinking and wastewater systems for the future and maximize the benefits of IIJA investment, protecting passive receivers is something Congress must get right.” – Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) during a committee hearing on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA. Capito was referring to protecting water utilities from legal liability from PFAS. Water utilities do not want to be held financially responsible for PFAS contamination if the chemicals are designated as hazardous substances under federal waste cleanup law. The EPA aims to finalize its designations in February 2024.

By the Numbers

6 Percent: Volume of ice lost last year from glaciers in the Swiss Alps. The number is included in State of the Climate in 2022, a statistical review of the previous year’s weather patterns. The report is compiled by NOAA scientists.

$180 Million: Funding for large-scale water recycling in the western states through the federal infrastructure bill. Administered by the Bureau of Reclamation, the funds will have three application windows, the last of which closes September 30, 2024. Federal funds can cover up to 25 percent of the project cost. Between two and 10 projects will be awarded funds.

News Briefs

Lead in Drinking Water, and the EPA’s Lack of Urgency
The EPA’s internal watchdog criticized staff in the agency’s Region 5 office for not acting quickly when discovering high lead levels in the drinking water in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

The EPA Office of the Inspector General said the regional staff should have invoked the “elevation policy” once they learned of the high-poverty city’s lead problems. A response to the Flint lead crisis, the policy allows urgent public health matters to circumvent the slow and cumbersome procedures for correcting infractions.

The OIG’s report made two recommendations to the EPA: assess how the elevation policy can be more effective and devise guidelines for using it. The agency rejected the first point, arguing that the policy is effective. It accepted the second, proposing to brief new staff on the policy and mentioning it in weekly internal newsletters.

In context: Benton Harbor Water Woes Loom for Michigan Cities

Studies and Reports

Border Wall Environmental Damage
The Trump administration, waiving environmental laws as part of an emergency authorization, erected 458 miles of new or replacement barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Those barriers encroached on wildlife habitat, impeded their movements, dried up ponds in San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, and altered the flow of water, among other environmental damages, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

When the Biden administration paused construction in 2021, the barriers were in various stages of completion. Drainage and culverts in some sections were not – and still are not – in place, the report found. Flooding has worsened.

Freshwater Mussels Research
Widespread in the U.S. and vital ecosystem cogs, these creatures are nonetheless among the planet’s most endangered species.

To better understand the challenges, the U.S. Geological Survey outlined a research program for freshwater mussels in the U.S.

The program emphasizes three prongs: biodiversity, emerging stressors, and conservation.

On the Radar

Regulating Ship Ballast Water
The EPA tentatively agreed to a timeline for regulating water pollution from ship ballast water and other vessel discharges.

These discharges can spread non-native species from one waterbody to another.

Under the proposed consent decree, the agency will issue a final rule by September 23, 2024.

The agreement is a result of a lawsuit. Environmental groups sued the agency for missing a December 2020 deadline imposed by Congress.

Senate Extreme Weather Hearing
On September 13, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will discuss the impacts of extreme heat and weather on the transportation sector.

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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