Democrats Take Control of Key House, Senate Committees

The Democratic Party’s gains in November’s U.S. congressional elections portend a shift in the direction...

The Democratic Party’s gains in November’s U.S. congressional elections portend a shift in the direction of water-related legislation when the 110th Congress convenes in January.

Although Democrats won control of both the House and the Senate, the victory in the House of Representatives was the most impressive, as Democrats ended 12 years of Republican control.

The competition between a Democratic Congress and a Republican administration will make it more difficult to pass water legislation in the next two years, especially as the 2008 Presidential election nears.

The primary committees that handle drinking water and water treatment issues both face significant upheaval. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), is in line to take the gavel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).

A more striking change will occur on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where consumer-oriented Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) will assume the chair from pro-business James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

The energy committees of Congress have some jurisdiction over water issues. Rep. John Dingell (R-Mich.) who was chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee 12 years ago, will take the gavel back from Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). In the Senate, Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) will take control of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee from Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).

In October, Rep. Oberstar blasted the Bush Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress for not doing more to improve the quality of the nation’s waters. He said current policies have slowed, stopped, or reversed the progress made since the inception of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Oberstar said the Republicans had tried to repeal safeguards in the act, tried to restrict or eliminate federal funding for water, and allowed the administration to make regulatory changes that undermine water protection.

Environmental Group Seeks Tighter Perchlorate Standard

A federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study has concluded that minute traces of perchlorate -- a toxic rocket fuel chemical that has been found in milk, fruit, vegetables and drinking water supplies nationwide -- can lower essential thyroid hormones in women.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) said 44 million American women who are pregnant, thyroid deficient or have low iodine levels are at heightened risk from exposure to the chemical.

EWG said the CDC researchers analyzed urine samples from more than 1,100 women for perchlorate, and then looked to see if perchlorate exposure could predict thyroid hormone levels. They found a relationship between perchlorate levels as low as 3 parts per billion (ppb) and thyroid hormones for women.

EWG said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should set a drinking water standard of no more than 0.1 ppb of perchlorate -- almost 250 times more stringent than the current federal recommendation for cleanup of contaminated water. It also said the Food and Drug Administration should make the iodization of salt mandatory, because insufficient iodide in a diet can compound perchlorate’s health effects.

Most perchlorate is used by the Department of Defense to make solid rocket and missile fuel. Smaller amounts of perchlorate are also used to make firework and road flares.

Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both California Democrats, wrote EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson about their concerns.

“Given the serious health threat posed by widespread perchlorate exposure, we request that you take immediate steps to incorporate the information from the CDC study in a health advisory and new perchlorate standards and goals,” they said.

The senators said last year the Government Accountability Office found 395 sites in 35 states with perchlorate levels above 4 ppb, including 106 sites in California.

“EPA knows of 153 drinking water systems in 26 states with perchlorate contamination. California knows of 276 active or standby water wells contaminated with perchlorate,” they said.

They said last January EPA issued guidance that recommended a cleanup goal at toxic waste sites of 24.5 ppb. “It is clear that more protective standards are necessary.”

DHS Grant to Fund Water Sector Partnerships

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has approved a $1.7 million grant for the Water Environment Federation (WEF), Alexandria, VA, to implement a three-year program to build partnerships between water sector utility managers and their counterparts from the transportation, energy, and other key sectors.

Building on its current water sector security program, the WEF will seek ways to advance prevention, protection, response, and recovery from incidents of national significance. The training will focus not just on drinking water and wastewater utilities but also on managers from other related critical infrastructures and on local government officials.

“WEF has been a leader in providing all size water sector utilities with security and emergency response training and we are particularly pleased to cooperate with DHS on this innovative program,” said WEF Executive Director Bill Bertera. “Many of the nation’s critical infrastructures are dependent on the water sector, and we are dependent on them. Addressing this relationship is key to reducing loss of life as well as minimizing the economic, social, and other impacts on the nation should an incident occur.”

WEF will sponsor webcasts, stakeholder symposiums, and regional training sessions/workshops.

USDA Awards Water Grants

Separately, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded 20 water grants totaling more than $9 million to universities nationwide. The grants will fund programs to improve drinking water quality, enhance lawn care practices and protect watersheds.

“Funded projects lead to science-based decision making and management practices that improve the quality of the nation’s surface water and groundwater resources in agricultural, rural and urbanizing watersheds,” USDA said. WW

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