Senate Approves $4.9 Billion for Drinking Water

Posted on September 15, 2016 by Rick Glick

Congress in recent years has not really been in the business of solving core public welfare problems like safe drinking water.  Today the Senate, however, has taken a major step forward by passing the 2016 Water Resources and Development Act, S. 2848.  WRDA bills are the annual appropriations bills to shore up the nation’s water service infrastructure.  The Senate bill would provide $9.4 billion for water projects, hydrology and flood control, including $4.9 billion to address aging municipal water systems. 

By and large, Americans take for granted that their municipal water supply systems deliver abundant, wholesome and safe drinking water.  Water borne illnesses are rare in this country, and the professionals I know that operate these systems take their jobs seriously and feel the weight of the responsibility.  And yet, there are colossal failures putting public health at risk—like Flint.

The Flint debacle reflects a complete absence of professional water management.  The problem there was a change in water supply, and the failure to add commonly available corrosion inhibiting chemicals to the water to prevent lead pipelines from leaching lead into Flint homes.  What should have been an inexpensive operational measure became a billion dollar pipe replacement project.  And that figure doesn’t include the long-term costs to address health effects of drinking the water, not to mention the cost of a different kind of corrosion, that of the public trust.

But even well-managed municipal water systems, including those that tout the high quality of the supply, can have serious lead problems.   My town of Portland, Oregon, has one of the purest water sources in the country, the Bull Run water shed on Mt. Hood.  The water is so soft, however, that it has a corrosive effect.  Luckily Portland doesn’t have lead service pipes like Flint, but many older homes have lead solder in their plumbing, resulting in Portland exceeding lead drinking water standards in high risk households and schools.

The Portland Water Bureau is taking steps to address the lead problem, like raising the pH level in the water to minimize lead leaching.  But Portland’s water rates are among the highest in the country, and the cost of maintaining safe water supplies is only going up.  There is a practical limit to how high water rates can go, and communities with fewer resources than Portland struggle to keep up.

This is where the federal government is supposed to step in, to address problems that exceed local capacities to protect the public.  Although a little late in coming, S. 2848 is a mostly bipartisan bill, which if enacted could move the needle in the right direction.  Let’s hope this bill gets through the House and to the President for signing without further delay.

Flint: Pb or not Pb, that is the Question

Posted on February 11, 2016 by Paul Seals

There is no safe blood lead level in children.

In following the inexplicable regulatory missteps in the Flint public water supply debacle, I could not help but think of the progress that has been made in removing lead from the environment and out of our children’s blood.  In spending my professional career addressing environmental issues and problems from a state, federal and private practice perspective, I often have wondered what difference does it make.   In the case of lead, we can actually measure our progress and success.

As a teenager, I filled my ‘54 Ford with regular leaded gasoline.   Lead was not only in gasoline, it was everywhere.  Recognizing the significant and often irreversible health effects of lead, regulatory programs were initiated at the federal, state, and local levels to “get the lead out.”  The implementation of these programs reduced or eliminated lead from gasoline, foods and food packaging, house paint, water pipes, plumbing fixtures, and solder used in plumbing and drink cans.  

Did these programs work?  In 1978, approximately 13.5 million children aged 1-5 had blood lead levels (BLLs) greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) of blood, which was until recently the level of concern recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).   The recommended level is now 5 ug/dL.  Also, back in the 70s, the average BLL was approximately 15 ug/dL.  Black children and children living in low-income families were at greater risk.     

We have come a long way from the 70s.  The average BLL in children dropped to 1.4 ug/dL by 2008.  Below is a table graphically demonstrating this dramatic decrease in BLLs.  The table is based on data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971 – 2008, taken from a CDC report, Lead in Drinking Water and Human Blood Lead Levels in the United States, August 10, 2012.

As we beat ourselves up over the mistakes in Flint, we should take a moment to reflect on and be re-energized by the demonstrable success of these regulatory programs.   What we have done has made a difference!  Flint reminds us that more must still be done.

 

Timeline of lead poisoning prevention policies and blood lead levels in children aged 1–5 years, by year — National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971–2008

"We All Let the Citizens of Flint Down"

Posted on February 4, 2016 by Alexandra Dapolito Dunn

With busloads of concerned citizens from Flint and nearby cities gathered around the Rayburn House Office Building on February 3, environmental regulators and science experts appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee) to give testimony regarding lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s public drinking water.  As detailed in this recent NPR podcast, well worth the 40 minute listen, between 6,000 and 12,000 children are estimated to have elevated blood lead levels following the City’s drinking water source change from Detroit water to water from the Flint River in 2014. 

How could a crisis like this have happened? While at first water policy groups were quick to highlight the nation’s aging water infrastructure and investment gap – EPA’s most recent estimate is that $384 billion is needed to assure safe drinking water from 2013 to 2030 – and certainly lead pipes to homes in older communities is a costly replacement problem – at the root of Flint was classic government dysfunction combined with assessments of safety that make sense to regulators but perhaps not to everyday people. At the hearing Joel Beauvais, acting Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water faced questions from Committee members about the Agency’s delayed response to the situation, while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s acting Director Keith Creagh was to explain why state officials did not act to address contamination immediately. Both officials attributed the crisis to breakdown in communication between the agencies that inhibited officials’ swift action. What happened in Flint “was avoidable and should have never happened,” according to Beauvais; while Creagh’s testimony stated that “[w]e all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis, whether it’s the city, the state, or the federal government… We all let the citizens of Flint down.”

The hearing ultimately took on a forward look, noting a reaffirmed commitment to protecting public health. “We do have clear standards. We do have clear accountability, so we have a clear path forward, said Creagh. “We are working in conjunction with the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”  Beauvais noted “it is imperative that Michigan, other states, EPA and drinking water system owners and operators nationwide work together and take steps to ensure that this never happens again.”

EPA and Michigan state and local officials are now in non-stop mode to ensure that prompt, concerted efforts are taken to address public health hazards. Members of Congress are introducing bills to fund Flint’s systems and to aid the affected citizens.  Even philanthropic groups are stepping in.  EPA’s Inspector General is doing a deep dive into the Agency’s response, Michigan Governor Snyder is seeking answers, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into criminal aspects of the matter. Flint’s drinking water will get better – and yet the affected population may never fully recover from their excessive lead exposures.  

The #FlintWaterCrisis is a sober reminder of the need to keep the nexus between environmental quality regulation and public health protection very tight.  As professionals in the environmental field, we cannot fear having frank conversations in the open about risks – and the importance of taking precautionary steps – when human health is at issue.  

DONALD TRUMP AND THE 18 POINT SOURCES

Posted on July 7, 2015 by Michael Gerrard

Since he's much in the news these days, I thought I'd share this story about an encounter of Donald Trump with the Clean Water Act.

Back in 1919, Eugene Meyer (a chairman of the Federal Reserve, the first president of the World Bank, publisher of the Washington Post, and father of Katherine Graham) built a palatial mansion on a 230-acre property in Westchester County, New York (about 40 miles north of New York City) known as Seven Springs. Eventually the property fell into disuse, and in 1996 Trump bought it so that he could build a luxury golf course there, with the mansion as the clubhouse. The land straddled the extremely affluent towns of Bedford, North Castle and New Castle, so those towns' zoning approval was needed.  It was adjacent to Byram Lake, which serves as the drinking water reservoir for the much less affluent Village of Mount Kisco.  More than one-third of its population is Hispanic.

Crabgrass and dandelions, of course, would be utterly unacceptable at a Trump golf course, so the plan involved the considerable application of pesticides.  Mount Kisco became very concerned that the stormwater runoff from the golf course flowing into Byram Lake would contaminate their drinking water. They hired me as their environmental counsel to see if Trump's plan could be stopped. Since none of the golf course was in Mount Kisco, the village had no direct authority. The town of New Castle gave Trump a hard time over traffic impacts, and he decided to give up plans to use that corner of the site for his project. Bedford and North Castle don't rely on Byram Lake for their water and weren't so concerned about the pesticides.

A close reading of the appendices to the environmental impact statement (when laid against state regulations) revealed that pesticide levels in the runoff could exceed drinking water standards under certain scenarios.  Trump proposed to address this problem through a novel technology called "linear adsorption systems" that would involve a carbon filtration unit at each of the 18 holes. The land would be graded so that the runoff went into these filtration units, which were supposed to remove the pesticides and discharge clean water into Byram Lake.

No such system had ever been built before, and we didn't know if it would work. We wanted it tested first. A local citizens group made up buttons saying "We're Not Trump's Guinea Pigs," with a drawing of a guinea pig and a red slash through it. The golf course didn't seem to require any state approvals, but I was able to convince the state environmental department that capturing the runoff, treating it, and discharging it through pipes had the effect of converting a sheet flow into point sources, requiring NPDES permits for each discharge point. This afforded us the opportunity to get a public hearing before the state regulators (in which we packed a high school auditorium with Mount Kisco residents worried about their drinking water), and then an adjudicatory hearing at which we pressed the need for a pilot test of the treatment system.

The hearing led to a decision that a pilot test was needed. We then entered into protracted administrative adjudication over the parameters of the pilot test.

All this went on for eight years. Finally, in 2004, Trump gave up the idea of the golf course and decided instead to build a small number of large single-family homes. That residential project involved far less use of pesticides than a golf course, and Mount Kisco was satisfied with it. The NY Daily News covered the story with the headline, "Trump 'Fires' Plan for New Golf Course Over Community Pesticide Concerns."

The local approval process for the homes took many more years, and was punctuated by litigation with the Nature Conservancy over an access easement.  Trump now has his approvals but construction of the homes has not yet begun. The property has been mostly idle during all this time, except that in 2009 he rented a portion of the land to some tenants from the Middle East, until it turned out that the tenants planned to erect tents to be used by Muammar el-Quaddafi while he was In New York for a United Nations meeting. When Bedford learned of this, they issued a stop work order because one can't erect a tent in Bedford without a permit, and Quaddafi never visited.

In the end, the environmental impact review process and the Clean Water Act did their jobs, the people of Mount Kisco still enjoy clean drinking water, and the occasional dandelion still pokes its head through the grass. And, notwithstanding all of this, Donald Trump tells us that he is still really, really rich.

PENNSYLVANIA CLEAN WATER AND BROWNFIELDS INVESTMENT OF STIMULUS FUNDS

Posted on February 27, 2009 by Joseph Manko

Among the priorities under the $787.5 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is repairing, rebuilding, and constructing the nation’s water infrastructure. Approximately $6 billion will augment the EPA’s clean water and drinking water state revolving funds, of which approximately $221 million will be disbursed to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Infrastructure Investment Authority (PennVest). The governing board of PennVest is appointed by Governor Rendell, and I have been serving as its chair for the past six years.

 

PennVest administers the approximately $300 million annual allotment of Clean Water and Drinking Water funds previously supplied by EPA on a matching basis with Pennsylvania. These funds will now be augmented by the $212 million in stimulus funds. The Clean Water Fund addresses waste water infrastructure. The fund also addresses brownfields (with its protection of water quality) and storm water, whereas the Drinking Water Fund is strictly for water supply and distribution. At least 50 percent of the funding must be in the form of grants.

 

With the current emphasis on sustainability, alternative energy, greenhouse gas emission reduction and the need for more stringent control over stormwater run-off, the allocation of stimulus funds by PennVest will focus on innovative green technology, including particularly, controlling stormwater and remediating brownfields (at least 20 percent of the stimulus funding must be used for “green infrastructure”.)

 

Although the final disbursement of the economic stimulus funding will be affected by various regulations, the awarding of grants and loans will likely be on the same timetable as in the past with an emphasis on “shovel ready” projects. Funding agreements must be entered into and contracts for the full amount signed within a year.  The ultimate goal is to immediately increase the amount of jobs needed to construct the infrastructural repair, rebuilding and construction. 

PENNSYLVANIA CLEAN WATER AND BROWNFIELDS INVESTMENT OF STIMULUS FUNDS

Posted on February 27, 2009 by Joseph Manko

Among the priorities under the $787.5 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is repairing, rebuilding, and constructing the nation’s water infrastructure. Approximately $6 billion will augment the EPA’s clean water and drinking water state revolving funds, of which approximately $221 million will be disbursed to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Infrastructure Investment Authority (PennVest). The governing board of PennVest is appointed by Governor Rendell, and I have been serving as its chair for the past six years.

 

PennVest administers the approximately $300 million annual allotment of Clean Water and Drinking Water funds previously supplied by EPA on a matching basis with Pennsylvania. These funds will now be augmented by the $212 million in stimulus funds. The Clean Water Fund addresses waste water infrastructure. The fund also addresses brownfields (with its protection of water quality) and storm water, whereas the Drinking Water Fund is strictly for water supply and distribution. At least 50 percent of the funding must be in the form of grants.

 

With the current emphasis on sustainability, alternative energy, greenhouse gas emission reduction and the need for more stringent control over stormwater run-off, the allocation of stimulus funds by PennVest will focus on innovative green technology, including particularly, controlling stormwater and remediating brownfields (at least 20 percent of the stimulus funding must be used for “green infrastructure”.)

 

Although the final disbursement of the economic stimulus funding will be affected by various regulations, the awarding of grants and loans will likely be on the same timetable as in the past with an emphasis on “shovel ready” projects. Funding agreements must be entered into and contracts for the full amount signed within a year.  The ultimate goal is to immediately increase the amount of jobs needed to construct the infrastructural repair, rebuilding and construction.