EPA Details Water Agenda in Senate Hearing

The Bush administration is working toward a nationwide water quality monitoring program, pollution trading programs...

By Maureen Lorenzetti

The Bush administration is working toward a nationwide water quality monitoring program, pollution trading programs, and watershed-based permitting, a top Environmental Protection Agency official told a Senate subcommittee.

The Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee on fisheries, wildlife and water held a hearing in September on water quality issues, including the Total Maximum Daily Load program.

"It is time to expand our focus from an almost exclusively point-source orientation to one that examines all sources of pollution, including non-point; from relying largely on technology-based standards to a water-quality-based approach; and from emphasizing inputs to focusing on environmental outcomes," said. G. Tracy Mehan, EPA's assistant administrator for water.

Mehan noted that over the past three decades regulators and stakeholders have made "tremendous progress" toward improving water quality. But he acknowledged "many challenges remain, and more works needs to be done: states are reporting increases in beach closures and fish consumption advisories, and a large zone of low dissolved oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ranking minority member James Jeffords (I-VT) criticized the current EPA's efforts, saying the agency is letting water quality slip across the board. He cited as evidence EPA testimony from 2002 that found 45% of US waters likely do not meet water quality standards.

"Rather than step up to the challenge of cleaning up our remaining waters, the administration is both failing to maintain the progress we have made since 1970 and failing to move forward on the remaining challenges that we all identified just one year ago," Jeffords said.

Jeffords, who chaired the panel last year when the Democrats controlled the Senate, said EPA's proposed TMDL rule "weakens protections for the dirtiest waters." Jeffords also said the agency's decision to extend a storm water discharge permit deadline's "a regulatory free ride to the oil and gas industry."

Meanwhile, some Republican lawmakers called on Mehan to give states more power to enforce water quality rules, especially TMDL standards.

Mehan's testimony called for a shift toward "stronger partnerships at the federal, state, tribal and local levels to facilitate the sharing of comparable data and the use of multiple monitoring tools."

EPA security grant

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) has received $1 million in federal funding to expand its security and emergency response training programs.

AWWA's five training programs include vulnerability assessment training, security hardware education, crisis communications preparation, an online emergency response planning course, and coordination planning among emergency response agencies. The programs will benefit managers, superintendents and others involved in addressing security at more than 1,200 water systems nationwide, the group said.

"AWWA strongly supports utilities' efforts to secure water supplies and prepare for emergency situations," said Jack Hoffbuhr, AWWA Executive Director. "We are pleased that this funding will allow AWWA to expand its training programs and help water suppliers meet today's high standards of preparedness."

MTBE Lawsuits

Water utilities are looking to accelerate the pace of lawsuits against producers of the fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether because of fears Congress may limit legal awards associated with water contamination claims. More than half a dozen lawsuits were filed in early October in New York state alone and more are anticipated.

Lawmakers are considering language within a pending energy bill that would give MTBE producers protection from product liability lawsuits. House Republicans from oil producing states including key legislators Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX) want the provision, but a Senate version of the bill does not offer protection.

Helping to spur the flurry of legal activity were concerns that Tauzin and his supporters, including Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) want to give MTBE producers protection retroactively from Oct. 1, instead of using the enactment date of the energy bill, if and when it gets passed.

The White House has been silent on whether it supports MTBE product liability protection. Congress is also mulling whether to ban MTBE from gasoline altogether; 17 states have already taken action to do so.

But a spokesman for MTBE producers said water utilities misunderstand what Tauzin is trying to accomplish with his "safe harbor" proposal.

"All MTBE lawsuits that have been filed thus far include allegations of negligence based on alleged mishandling of motor fuels that resulted in MTBE detection in water systems," said Frank Maisano, of the Oxygenated Fuels Association. "The safe harbor provision specifically maintains these causes of action, subject to the normal course of proof and causation in any lawsuit."

He predicted that courts may just dismiss these latest round of lawsuits.

"The intent of the legislation was to let this go free," he said. "I'm not certain that these would stick."

Wastewater Security Funding

The Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies wants a Senate floor vote on legislation that would give $200 million in grants to states and local agencies to conduct vulnerability assessments of publicly owned wastewater treatment facilities. The pending measure says money could also be used to implement security measures and to provide technical guidance to small public facilities.

The Wastewater Treatment Works Security Act of 2003, S. 1039, was sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee in May and favorably reported out committee Sept. 17.

In a letter to Sen. James Jeffords (I-VT), AMSA noted that the US House of Representatives twice passed nearly identical bi-partisan legislation, most recently by a vote of 413 – 2.

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