US Senate Considers Grant Program for Arsenic Rules

US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) in July re-introduced bipartisan legislation to create a multi-billion dollar grant program...

By Maureen Lorenzetti

US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) in July re-introduced bipartisan legislation to create a multi-billion dollar grant program to help communities comply with tougher arsenic rules due in 2006. Bill cosponsors include Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE).

In 2006, the EPA will begin imposing its new 10 parts per billion (ppb) arsenic water standards, a level sharply lower than the current 50 ppb standard.

Domenici's Community Drinking Water Assistance Act creates a grant program to assist disadvantaged communities, tribes and water associations in meeting EPA's new standards. The bill, if enacted, would authorize $1.9 billion/year from fiscal year (FY) 2004 through FY2009 for the grant program. Fiscal years start Oct. 1.

"The EPA is forcing communities to comply with new drinking water standards that many believe will not dramatically increase public health. The least we can do is help them meet the burden of what is essentially another unfunded federal mandate," Domenici said. "I believe it is important to aid communities, especially those very small towns with small water systems and limited resources."

But as encouraging as Domenici's proposal is, there still would be no guarantee more money would be coming down the pipeline to local water works. That's because even if Congress authorizes the funding, lawmakers must later still specifically earmark grant money for projects as part of the annual appropriations process.

The Domenici bill stipulates that grants would be awarded to disadvantaged communities with less than 200,000 in population. At least 20% of the grant monies would be directed to towns with less than 50,000 people. All grants require a 10% non-federal cost-share.

Domenici said the increased compliance costs are related to the advanced technologies required to upgrade the systems.

"Most of the technology needed for these upgrades will require a significant increase in the level of training and expertise for public water system operators. This legislation will help these communities upgrade their systems and train their people," Domenici said.

The pending FY2004 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, which awaits Senate debate, has $6 million for arsenic removal research. Domenici provided $4 million for this work in FY2003.

House Expands Funding For Underground Tanks

The House voted to add $7.3 million to a US Environmental Protection Agency program for leaking underground storage tanks, bringing annual funding to $80 million for the upcoming fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) sponsored the amendment to a larger spending bill, the VA-appropriations bill, HR 2861. The Senate has not considered the bill yet but may do something similar, congressional sources said.

Capps said the amendment was needed because of ongoing concerns in her state and others over lingering contamination of groundwater because of the highly soluble gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether. The money for the underground tanks was offset by cutting EPA's science and technology account.

Senate Action

Senators agreed to amend a pending comprehensive energy bill so it would authorize grants to the Ground Water Protection Council to develop risk-based data management systems in state oil and gas agencies to assist local regulators and oil and gas producers with compliance, economic forecasting, permitting, and exploration. Another part of S14 includes a provision allowing states to phase out MTBE. Fuel ethanol and MTBE are what refiners use to meet federal reformulated gasoline rules designed to curb smog. The Senate plan allows refiners to make RFG without MTBE or fuel ethanol. But fuel suppliers would still be required to add fuel ethanol to some gasoline to meet a new renewable fuel standard that sets a 5 billion gallons per year quota by 2012

A House RFG provision opposed by water utilities phases out MTBE but gives both MTBE and ethanol producers "safe harbor" liability protection. The Senate version only extends protection to ethanol and an ethanol-ether derivative, ethyl tertiary butyl ether.

The Senate was not expected to finish consideration of the larger energy bill before the month long August recess. The House passed its own version in the spring. Whether Congress has the time or motivation to finish an energy bill before it departs in the fall, now scheduled for Oct. 3, is unclear.

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