Federal Water Tap, April 1: EPA Plans National Study of PFAS Entering, Exiting Municipal Sewage Treatment Facilities

The Rundown

  • EPA intends to gather data on PFAS coming into and out of municipal sewage plants.
  • House passes infrastructure permitting bill opposed by the White House.
  • Western U.S. hydropower generation dropped to a 22-year low last year.
  • Defense Department finalizes a rule restricting PFAS in firefighting foam.
  • EPA enlists states in effort to protect water systems from cyberattacks.

And lastly, Ohio and Pennsylvania representatives press agency leaders to track health outcomes from hazardous chemical exposures connected to the East Palestine train derailment.

“I feel like you’re always nipping at my behind on this one, making sure we’re doing something.” – Xavier Becerra, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, responding to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) at a Senate Finance Committee hearing. Brown asked the secretary to commit to a voluntary disease registry and long-term health monitoring for residents in East Palestine, Ohio. A train derailment in February 2023 released toxic chemicals into air, land, and water.

By the Numbers

11 Percent: Annual decline in hydropower production in 11 western states, according to the Energy Information Administration. It was the lowest regional hydropower output since 2001. The drop was due to dry conditions in Oregon and Washington, whose rivers are significant sources of hydropower. Generation rose in California, where reservoir levels recovered from drought. The data cover the 2023 water year, which ended on September 30, 2023.

In context: What Happens If Glen Canyon Dam’s Power Shuts Off?

News Briefs

Cybersecurity Meeting
At a meeting with state leaders, federal officials urged a collaborative approach to protecting the nation’s water utilities from cyberattacks that could sabotage their systems.

Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security adviser, asked that each state submit a water cybersecurity plan by May 20.

Infrastructure Permitting
The Republican-led House passed a bill that would ease the permitting process for construction projects that affect waterways either by digging up wetlands or introducing pollutants.

It does this by extending permit timelines and shortening the period of agency and judicial review. The bill would also allow Florida to oversee wetlands permitting in the state under the Clean Water Act.

The bill is supported by homebuilding and fossil fuel industries and opposed by environmental groups.

In a policy statement, the White House said it “strongly opposes” the bill, arguing that the bill would “create uncertainty, confusion, and conflict in permitting processes.” Only two House Democrats voted for the measure.

Studies and Reports

PFAS in Municipal Sewage Study
To inform future regulation and policy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning a national study to determine the type and quantity of PFAS entering and exiting municipal sewage treatment facilities.

The EPA does not regulate PFAS in industrial waste discharges, which is how many PFAS would enter the sewage treatment plant. Little is known about PFAS in these discharges.

Nor does the agency restrict the chemicals in effluents and biosolids (a.k.a. treated sewage sludge), which is how they exit the treatment plant. PFAS have caused problems in both areas. The EPA regulates only nine pollutants in biosolids that are applied to land, none of which is PFAS.

The proposed study would enlist about 400 of the largest wastewater treatment systems across the country. Those facilities would complete questionnaires. A subset of 200 to 300 will do additional analysis on their untreated wastewater, treated wastewater, and sewage sludge.

The agency is seeking public comment on the project before it submits the data collection request to the White House. Comments are due May 28. Submit them via www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA–HQ– OW–2023–0580.

In context: EPA Watchdog Flags Unregulated Pollutants in Treated Sewage Sludge

EPA and USAID Join Forces
The two agencies signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on environmental improvements domestically and abroad.

The MOU mentions clean energy, methane emission, environmental governance, lead exposure, water and sanitation, and plastic pollution as topics primed for a joint effort.

Monitoring Harmful Algal Blooms
The U.S. Geological Survey studied the effectiveness of on-lake sensors for monitoring harmful algal blooms in New York’s Finger Lakes region.

The study found the sensors “performed well overall,” but there is room for improvement.

On the Radar

PFAS at the DOD
The Defense Department finalized a rule that restricts the military’s procurement of firefighting foams containing PFAS.

The rule, mandated by an act of Congress, requires firefighting foams purchased by the DOD to have less than one part per billion of PFAS.

Consent Decree for West Virginia River
The EPA is seeking public comment on a proposed consent decree for settling pollution limits in the Lower Guyandotte River of West Virginia.

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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