Congress Urges EPA To Reconsider Blending Rule

Sixteen U.S. senators have urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reconsider its proposed "blending" rule, announced Nov. 7...

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

Sixteen U.S. senators have urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reconsider its proposed "blending" rule, announced Nov. 7, which would allow more frequent discharges of partially treated sewage into receiving water.

Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), the senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, led the effort.

The senators wrote, "The proposed blending guidance would allow water that receives only primary treatment to bypass the secondary treatment process and be discharged into receiving waters. Disinfection is not required by the proposed guidance as a condition of the use of blending, and it is not consistently required in areas where human contact with water is expected.

"Because EPA's proposed guidance increases the allowable uses of blending, it increases the likelihood that bacteria, viruses, and pathogens present in wastewater flows entering treatment plants will be discharged and will come into contact with people through swimming or drinking water."

The senators also claimed the blending guidance undermines the 1994 EPA Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) policy which requires, as part of a long-term control plan, the evaluation of alternatives to eliminate CSOs. "By expanding the potential use of blending, it is likely that more communities will select blending instead of other alternatives with greater water quality benefits. The result will be a missed opportunity to clean up the nation's CSO discharges."

Signing the letter with Jeffords were 15 Democrats: Patrick Leahy of Vermont, John Kerry and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Frank Lautenberg and Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Harry Reid of Nevada, Hilary Clinton and Charles Schumer of New York, Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, and Barbara Boxer of California.

The National Resources Defense Council claimed the blending rule would violate the Clean Water Act, which requires the treatment of sewage before it is discharged, except in an emergency.

NRDC said for the last 50 years sewage treatment has been a two-step process: solids removal, and biological treatment to kill bacteria, viruses and parasites. Some plants also use chlorine to disinfect sewage.

The environmental group said the new policy would allow facilities to routinely bypass the second step and "blend" partially treated sewage with fully treated wastewater before discharging it into waterways. NRDC said sewage plant operators currently are allowed to blend partially treated sewage only in extreme cases, such as hurricanes and tropical storms, when there is no feasible alternative. It said the new policy will allow plants to dump partially treated sewage anytime it rains or snows.

CWA Anniversary

EPA noted that Dec. 16 was the 30th anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

It said the law has helped more than 273 million people served by 53,000 community water systems "enjoy one of the safest and cleanest water supplies in the world."

In promulgating the law, EPA has established public health standards for more than 90 contaminants to protect the public from chemicals and pathogens that can cause waterborne illnesses.

Jack Hoffbuhr, American Water Works Association executive director, said, "The best testimony to the success of the Safe Drinking Water Act is that Americans can drink from virtually any public water supply with an extraordinarily high degree of confidence that the water is safe. In a world where thousands of people die each day from waterborne diseases, this is a public health achievement we should never take for granted.

"Today, we can proudly say that more than 90% of water systems in the U.S. provide water that meets all of EPA's stringent standards. This kind of accomplishment would not be possible were it not for the partnership forged among water professionals and federal and state regulators.

"While the Safe Drinking Water Act has been largely successful, the water community faces new challenges today. The security of our water has become a dominant concern in the post-911 era. Drought conditions and population shifts have increased interest in promising new technologies like desalination and water reuse. And, as health effects research has evolved and testing methods have improved, water professionals are working to reduce exposure to more substances than ever before."

Wetlands Issues

EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers said in December they would not issue expand federal regulatory jurisdiction over isolated wetlands.

In 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County vs. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, overturned the Corps' assertion of federal jurisdiction over certain isolated wetlands based on the presence of migratory birds.

EPA and the Corps responded with revised guidance to their field offices. At the same time, they reaffirmed federal jurisdiction over the majority of wetlands not impacted by the decision.

After soliciting public comment to determine if further regulatory clarification was needed, the EPA and the Corps have decided against it. They said they would continue to monitor wetlands protection and the administration would continue to operate dozens of programs to protect and restore wetlands.

Water Resources

Western water issues already are drawing the attention of the new Congress.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the nation needs a better approach for replenishing water resources in western states.

He said, "Today, the southwest uses 80-100% of its renewable supplies. At the same time, the West's population increases by 20% per decade. That's 12 million new people in the West, needing 2 million more acre-feet of water over the next 10 years - and each 10 years thereafter. Clearly, we are reaching the critical limits of our supplies.

"We have relied on conservation for the last 10 years to extend the supply. Conservation, storage and transfer are all finite and thus limited. Only water treatment provides hope for the long term. We must make advanced water treatment an acceptable and a cost effective way to expand the water supply."

He urged the creation of a National Water Supply Council to coordinate federal activities with those of state and non-government entities.

He also recommended a $200 million/year Department of Energy program to develop commercial water treatment technology that would increase the supply of usable water by reducing the cost and technological obstacles.

Perchlorate Bill

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) plans to file a bill regarding perchlorate contamination in food and water supplies.

She said perchlorate has been found in more than 350 California drinking water sources and has been identified as a contaminant of drinking water sources or the environment in 34 states. The chemical, a highly soluble salt that can readily permeate soils, was used in rocket fuel and munitions

High levels of perchlorate impede thyroid hormone production by interfering with iodine uptake. Insufficient thyroid hormone production can permanently damage a child's physical and mental development.

Feinstein's bill would authorize $200 million to identify and clean up the sources of perchlorate, provide R&D grants, create a federal task force, require EPA to set a drinking water standard for perchlorate, and make polluting companies responsible for cleanup efforts.

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