House Approves Water Infrastructure Funding Measures By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved three water bills but opposition from the Bush administration had their futures in doubt.

by Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved three water bills but opposition from the Bush administration had their futures in doubt.

The Water Quality Financing Act (H.R. 720) passed 303-108. It would authorize the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) at $14 billion for the next four fiscal years. Since 1987, the SRF has made more than $47 billion of low interest loans available to communities to help them repair and replace aging clean water infrastructure.

National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), which represents wastewater treatment plants, said EPA, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the Water Infrastructure Network have estimated the funding gap for water infrastructure at $300-$500 billion over 20 years. The bill requires GAO to report on potential revenue sources for a clean water trust fund by next Jan. 1.

NACWA said the House vote was “a solid first step toward averting a crisis of crumbling infrastructure that threatens the water quality gains of the last 35 years under the Clean Water Act.”

The administration’s fiscal 2008 budget proposal called for a $200 million reduction in the Clean Water SRF program, which Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called “simply unacceptable because it is not sufficient funding to keep pace with the nation’s water infrastructure needs.”

For the Bush administration, a key problem with the House bill is that it would apply Davis-Bacon Act provisions to wastewater infrastructure projects, requiring workers to be paid the prevailing wage of the local workforce. Republican opponents said that would make the projects more expensive in 18 states that do not have prevailing wage laws.

Before the expiration of the Clean Water SRF authorization in 1995, only the initial federal seed money for infrastructure projects was subject to prevailing wage requirements. Under H.R. 720, Davis-Bacon requirements would be expanded to non-federal funds as well, including state matching funds, communities’ loan repayments, and interest.

Also, the House approved the Water Quality Investment Act (H.R. 569) in a 367-58 vote. It would authorize $1.7 billion in federal funding for state and municipal projects to control combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) for fiscal years 2008 through 2012.

Although the bills would authorize the spending, Congress would have to appropriate funds later.

CSOs occur when high volumes of rainwater or snowmelt exceed a sewage treatment plant’s capacity and are bypassed around it. Discharges of SSOs, which involve sanitary waters, are from manholes, broken pipes and deteriorated infrastructure.

Oberstar said both kinds of discharges are the result of poor maintenance, deteriorating infrastructure, or inadequate capacity. To prevent them, communities must redesign or expand their sewer systems. EPA has estimated that communities need to spend $50.6 billion to eliminate CSOs and $88.5 billion on SSOs.

And the House voted 368-59 to pass the Healthy Communities Water Supply Act (H.R. 700). It would authorize $125 million for alternative water source projects such as wastewater reclamation and reuse. Congress had authorized the program for fiscal years 2002 through 2004 but did not appropriate funds.

The administration threatened to veto H.R. 569 and 700, saying they were unrealistic in the current financial climate.

Group Urges Improved Methanol Safety Practices

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) has urged the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and the Methanol Institute to promote methanol safety at wastewater treatment facilities.

The recommendation came in the board’s report on an accident at the Bethune Point wastewater treatment plant in Daytona Beach, Fla.

On Jan. 11, 2006, three workers were removing a hurricane-damaged steel roof when sparks from an acetylene torch ignited vapors from a methanol tank, causing an explosion that killed two workers and critically injured the third.

Some wastewater plants use methanol to accelerate the biodegradation of excess nitrogen and reduce nitrogen-loading of sensitive aquifers from plant effluent.

“The hazards of methanol weren’t even on the radar screen until a few years ago but with the fatalities in Florida, we want to do everything we can to prevent something even close to the accident in Bethune Point from happening again,” said Al Calliers, chairman of WEF’s Safety and Occupational Health Committee.

“Wastewater treatment plant operators use hazardous chemicals like chlorine every day, but many are unfamiliar with methanol,” said MI president and CEO John Lynn. “Working cooperatively, our two organizations will impart basic facts about the physical properties of methanol, and how to properly store and handle this flammable and hazardous chemical. Tragic accidents like the one in Bethune Point are preventable, and knowledge is the key.”

CSB said that the methanol tank’s flame arrester, a safety device designed to prevent flames from entering the methanol tank while allowing gases and vapors to escape, was corroded and had not been inspected or cleaned since its installation in 1993.

The agency also urged that Florida enact legislation to require public employees to follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. Florida is one of 26 states that do not.

In other Washington news:

- A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report has urged the creation of a national coastal water-quality monitoring network. It said coordinated monitoring is needed due to the many problems facing coastal water bodies, including nutrient over-enrichment, inputs of toxic contaminants and pathogens, and habitat alteration.

- EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Ben Grumbles has requested a federal advisory committee to develop a revision of the Total Coliform Rule (TCR). The project is expected to take a year starting in June.

-WEF has briefed Congress on Compounds of Emerging Concern - an array of substances that offer improvements in industry, agriculture, medical treatment, and common household conveniences but may adversely impact the environment.

- Twenty six organizations representing wastewater utilities, environmental groups, states, and others have urged EPA to promote green infrastructure. They said, “Green infrastructure can be both a cost effective and an environmentally preferable approach to reduce storm water and other excess flows entering combined or separate sewer systems in combination with, or in lieu of, centralized hard infrastructure solutions.”

-- The American Society of Civil Engineers has urged Congress to adopt a broad plan to repair the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure. The proposal includes the authorization of the Clean Water SRF and authorization of $1 billion in annual funding for the Safe Drinking Water SRF.

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