Water Infrastructure Initiatives Afoot

Separate regulatory and legislative developments could affect local government ability to afford water infrastructure projects. The Environmental Protection Agency is considering revisions to the agency’s 1997 financial capability guidelines which dictate how hard the agency can press cities and counties to undertake expensive Clean Water Act projects such as sewer repairs.

Meanwhile, Congress passed a Hurricane Sandy relief bill which contains an additional $600 million for state revolving fund (SRF) projects in New York and New Jersey, and widens the kinds of projects eligible beyond those traditionally funded by the EPA, a precedent that could be included in upcoming legislation so that it applied to all states.

The EPA published a memorandum in January which said it was working with interested parties to “clarify” its June 2012 Integrated Municipal Stormwater and Wastewater Planning Approach Framework. That Framework essentially softened slightly some of the tough requirements in the 1997 guidelines, which gave the EPA the ability to set draconian requirements for sewer projects. The memorandum indicates that the EPA wants to be more sensitive to communities with low-income populations by allowing them to set lower water use rates. Elsewhere, the memorandum says that there is a “misperception” that the EPA uses an ironclad guideline of 2 percent of median family income to determine how much a locality is required to spend on a clean water remediation project.

“EPA’s commitment to an ongoing dialogue is an important step forward,” said Ken Kirk, executive director for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). “It is critical, however, that EPA uses this opportunity to gather additional input and address many of the long-standing concerns that NACWA has been raising regarding affordability. The Framework’s reliance on financial capability considerations, however, underscored the need to update and refine the outdated approaches outlined in EPA’s 1997 guidance for financial capability. Many limitations of EPA’s current financial capability analysis need to be addressed.”

Meanwhile, on a related wastewater issue, Congress handed over another $500 million to the EPA for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund as part of the Hurricane Sandy Relief bill Congress passed at the end of January. That legislation also included an extra $100 million for the Clean Water SRF. Those sums are on top of the approximately $2.5 billion the agency is expected to have for fiscal year 2013, which began Oct. 1, 2012. Congress has not set a final EPA budget for fiscal 2013, or any other federal budgets, because of the continuing debate of resolving “sequestration.” The additional $600 million must be spent on projects in New York and New Jersey.

Aside from the extra $600 million, the Sandy bill also contained some important legislative language which expands eligible SRF projects in these two states to include those “whose purpose is to reduce flood damage risk and vulnerability or to enhance resiliency to rapid hydrologic change or a natural disaster at treatment works . . .” Hanna Mellman, legislative manager for NACWA, says allowing SRF funds to be used to harden water infrastructure against the effects of a future storm or hurricane sets a precedent. That could include protecting underground pumping stations from being flooded, for example. The NACWA hopes Congress will encode the “enhance resiliency to rapid hydrologic change or a natural disaster” language in future legislation affecting the SRF funding in all states.

PHMSA pressured to turn on pipeline valves rulemaking

A Columbia Gas and Transmission Corp. pipeline gas leak in West Virginia last December has reignited the debate over installation of automatic shutoff valves (ASVs) and remote control valves (RCVs) as a means of quickly limiting the potentially disastrous effects of a pipeline explosion and subsequent fire. The fire in Sissonville, WV, destroyed three homes and closed a section of a major highway for 14 hours.

Columbia was slow to pick up on the gas leak. The controller on duty at the time of the accident received 16 pressure drop alerts having to do with three, separate intertwined pipelines monitored by the company Supervisory Control & Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. But no critical alarms sounded. The control room only found out about the leak after receiving notification from another pipeline company, Cabot, who called to say one of its field technicians was seeing a “huge boom and flames shooting over the interstate.” Columbia finally closed two manual shut-off valves at two separate compression stations 58 minutes after the explosion.

The National Transportation Safety Board has not issued a report on the cause of the accident. The 20-inch diameter pipeline that cracked was installed in 1967 and pressure-tested twice that year. Line SM-80 had never been pigged. But Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), told a Senate committee hearing at the Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse in Charleston, WV, on Jan. 28 that Columbia’s delayed realization of a leak echoed similar delayed reactions of other pipeline companies in past disastrous leaks in Michigan, California and elsewhere.

Hersman’s comments took on extra potential significance because she has been mentioned as the leading candidate to be nominated by President Obama as the next Secretary of Transportation. The department is home to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which issues and enforces federal pipeline safety rules. At the hearings, Rick Kessler, president of the board for The Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group created by Congress after the San Bruno pipeline explosion in 2010, severely criticized successive administrations going back before Obama and Bush for neglecting the PHMSA. “It is not as effective a regulatory agency as it should be,” he stated.

A case in point, according to Kessler, is the agency’s failure to require pipelines to install ASVs or RCVs on new pipelines, and some existing pipelines where, in the latter case, that makes sense. He complained that industry concerns about installing valves on existing pipelines were “starting to ring a bit hollow.” He added that the U.S. is able to conduct a war against terrorism using remotely controlled drones. “But we can’t operate pipeline shut off valves by remote control,” he asked rhetorically?
Cynthia Quarterman, Administrator, of the PHMSA told the hearing the agency was considering new rules on both gas transmission pipeline leak detection and ASV and RCV installation. In fact, the PHMSA issued separate advance notices of proposed rulemakings (ANPRs) in 2010 and 2011 for hazardous liquid and gas transmission use of ASVs and RCVs. The agency has not moved forward in either case, since. The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 includes a requirement that PHMSA issue regulations requiring the use of automatic or remote-control shut-off valves on new transmission pipelines, if feasible.

At the hearings, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, asked Quarterman whether he should be worried about the “if feasible” qualification in the 2012 law. By that he meant whether the PHMSA might decide valves are infeasible. Quarterman answered, “Industry is committed to this going forward.” But she quickly added, “New pipelines are the easy part. Existing pipelines are much more difficult.”

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