Senators Call for Boosting Water Funding

A bipartisan group of 31 senators urged congressional budget makers to boost funding for clean water and drinking water infrastructure, calling it a top environmental and health priority.

A bipartisan group of 31 senators urged congressional budget makers to boost funding for clean water and drinking water infrastructure, calling it a top environmental and health priority.

The lawmakers want a total of $5.2 billion for the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Revolving Funds (SRF). They cited the Environmental Protection Agency Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis which found that there will be a $535 billion gap between current spending and projected needs for water and wastewater infrastructure over the next 20 years if additional investments are not made.

"It is vital that the federal government maintains a strong partnership with state and local governments in averting this massive projected funding gap and share in the burden of maintaining and improving the nation's water infrastructure," the senators said. "An increase in funding for the Clean Water SRF to $3.2 billion and for the Drinking Water SRF to $2 billion in fiscal year 2005 is the first step necessary to meet the federal government's longstanding commitment in this regard."

The current budget gives $1.35 billion for clean water SRF, and $850 million for drinking water grants to states.

Among the letter signers was Democratic presidential frontrunner John Kerry (D-MA), independent Jim Jeffords (I-VT), and Republicans Olympia Snowe (ME), Arlen Specter (PA) and Mike DeWine of Ohio.

Water Groups Continue Fight Against MTBE Provision

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) and a coalition of civic organizations and water advocates in late February called on lawmakers to reject oil industry efforts to include product liability protection, or "safe harbor" language to companies that produce the clean fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether.

Leaking underground storage tanks that contained MTBE-blended gasoline have been linked to groundwater contamination problems in dozens of states. A revised Senate bill eliminated an earlier provision that protected MTBE makers from product liability lawsuits. The MTBE safe harbor language is one reason negotiations over a comprehensive energy bill have been stalled in Congress. The Senate does not have enough support for MTBE liability to include it in a bill, but House leaders say they will not accept an energy bill that does not contain the protection.

"Mainstream Americans see MTBE 'safe harbor' for what it is: bad public policy that serves special interests at the expense of water consumers," said American Water Works Association Executive Director Jack Hoffbuhr in an open letter advertised in the Washington DC publication Roll Call. "This provision has already choked the life from a previous version of the national energy Bill. Now the oil lobby wants to force-feed it to Congress again. Local communities, water utilities and consumers don't want the energy bill, transportation bill or any other legislation contaminated by MTBE safe harbor."

The letter was signed by AWWA, the National League of Cities, the US Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Towns and Townships, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the Association of California Water Agencies, the Western Coalition of Arid States and the American Public Works Association.

"It's clear that Americans do not want this provision in the energy bill," Hoffbuhr said. "If special interests try to attach MTBE safe harbor to other legislation, it should be turned away like a parasite seeking a new host."

Environmentalists Warn Of Health Issue Related To Aging Sewer Systems

Sewage pollution costs Americans billions of dollars every year in medical treatment, lost productivity and property damage, a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Integrity Project said. The two groups blamed the Bush administration for compounding the problem. One big issue the group has is that the new White House budget proposes to cut funding for wastewater infrastructure. They are also concerned EPA is proposing new rules that would diminish public health protections.

The report, for example, warned of an emerging environmental and public health crisis resulting from the federal EPA and states' failure to effectively treat sewage. Report authors argued that sewage from homes, businesses and factories often never reaches a treatment plant and, when it does, too often it is not treated adequately to protect public health.

"We have a looming public health crisis on our hands that will take billions of dollars to fix," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "Fortunately we do have the technological know-how to deal with this sewage problem. What we don't have is political will. In fact, President Bush's new budget proposal dramatically slashes funding for wastewater infrastructure. At nearly $500 million, it's his biggest cut for any environmental program, and it's indefensible."

The result of the proposed cut, Stoner added, would be more beach closings, more contaminated shellfish beds, more polluted drinking water supplies, and more waterborne disease, which now sickens nearly 8 million Americans every year.

"Waterborne disease outbreaks are on the rise across the country," said Michele Merkel of EIP. "Most often, Americans get diarrhea, skin rashes or respiratory infections, but waterborne illness can threaten the lives of seniors, young children, cancer patients, and others with impaired immune systems. Now is the time to boost funding to protect Americans, not cut it."

"Swimming in Sewage," features seven case studies from around the country that illustrate how exposure to sewage pollution has killed or seriously injured people and harmed local economies. The case studies are from California, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

The report also identified several Bush administration policies besides the new Bush budget cut proposal that exacerbate sewage pollution. Those policies include shelving a Clinton administration proposal that would have required controls to prevent raw sewage discharges, and a new proposal to allow sewer operators to discharge inadequately treated sewage in waterways when it rains.

The environmental groups were especially critical of the EPA "blending" plan because they say it involves mixing treated and untreated sewage. NRDC and EIP called it "a radical departure from current treatment standards", which require full treatment for sewage except in emergency conditions such as hurricanes, and would violate the Clean Water Act.

The report concludes with recommendations to address America's sewage problem. NRDC and EIP urge the Bush administration to drop its new blending policy, establish a national clean water trust fund to assist communities to provide effective sewage treatment, set standards for Cryptosporidium and Giardia and other currently unregulated water pollutants that make people sick, and enforce Clean Water Act requirements that would prevent raw sewage discharges.

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