House Committee Considers Drinking Water Spending

The House committee with authority for approving drinking water infrastructure funding has begun a legislative effort to reauthorize the 1996 law which created the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF). Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said both Republicans and Democrats support making newer and larger investments in the nation’s infrastructure. But he did not specifically endorse higher funding for either the DWSRF or the Public Water System Supervision (PWSS) grants, the two federal funding programs that help cities, towns and villages repair underground water pipes in order to address lead and other water contamination issues.

For the past four years, state PWSS programs have been flat funded at $101.9 million. The DWSRF has seen decreased funding. In fiscal years 2014 and 15, $906.8 million was awarded for the infrastructure loan program, but FYS 16 and 17 saw the appropriation decrease to $863.2 million.

“These essential public health programs with well-documented needs and successes must be fully supported, even in these economically challenged times,” Lisa Daniels, director, Bureau of Safe Drinking Water, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, told the committee’s energy subcommittee on May 19. She was testifying on behalf of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA), which wants the PWSS program funded at $200 million and the DWSRF at $1 billion.

The subcommittee hearing featured airing of a “discussion draft” – a step short of an actual bill –  called the Drinking Water System Improvement Act. It reauthorizes the DWSRF and PWSS for five years between fiscal 2018 and 2022. Reauthorization sets the upper dollar limit on what Congress can appropriate, although appropriations are often short of authorization ceilings.

When the DWSRF was first authorized in 1996, the Safe Drinking Water Act amendments, in which it was included, set the authorization at $1 billion per year for FY 1995 through FY 2003. It has not been reauthorized subsequent to FY 2003. A reauthorization would allow Congress to both raise the authorization level and make legal changes to the program. However, in the absence of a reauthorization during the past 14 years, congressional appropriations have not necessarily been constrained. For example, the highest DWSRF appropriation was in fiscal 2010 for $1.387 billion.

Although the discussion draft reauthorizes the DWSRF – which, in terms of funding for underground construction of water piping is more important than the PWSS – it does not include a dollar figure. Walden justified that absence by saying the committee had not received “specific recommendations about what a realistic number is” for a DWSRF authorization level in the last hearings. Those were on March 16, 2017. Numbers were definitely suggested by those testifying on May 19. Walden cautioned, however, that whatever authorization was finally established, depending on how high the dollar figure, it might have to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

The discussion draft is a little more specific on other issues. For example, it would allow contractual agreements between a water system and another entity to receive a two-year enforcement reprieve, which must address significant management or administrative functions that correct identified violations, and be approved by either the state or EPA. Another provision allows states to give public water systems more leeway on asset management.

Martin Kropelnicki, president and CEO, California Water Service Group, said the provision on asset management is an important step, but the committee needs to consider a more robust approach. He was testifying on behalf of the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC).
“In this regard, NAWC has been working closely with other water groups to promote legislation that would encourage partnerships, ranging from peer-to-peer support and public-private partnerships, to transfer and consolidation,” he explained.

Kropelnicki took a somewhat contrarian position to other witnesses arguing for higher DWSRF and PWSS congressional funding. “While many communities continue to clamor for more federal funding, more funding is not going to solve this growing crisis,” he said. “In many cases, water system failures – be they related to water quality, reliability or both – are not solely due to the absence of funding, but rather are directly attributable to the failure of proper governance, poor decision-making, and lack of stringent oversight.”

He cited, for example, a 2015 California law that authorized the State Water Board to require systems that consistently failed to meet public health standards to consolidate with other systems through physical or managerial consolidation. He acknowledged, however, that small and rural communities have few viable partnership options, advocating for Congress to reprioritize federal funding and technical assistance toward those systems and communities where partnerships and consolidation are not viable.

EPA Agrees To Reconsider Elements Of Methane Emissions Controls

The Environmental Protection Agency has delayed implementation of its 2016 methane leak rule for 90 days beyond the original June 3, 2017, start date, as a first step in reconsideration of parts of that rule. Both the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) criticized various provisions in the final rule, issued in May 2016, with the API submitting an August 2016 request for reconsideration of numerous provisions, a request the Obama administration ignored.

But on April 18, 2017, Trump Administration EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt sent a letter to the API pushing the compliance deadline back 90 days and conceding that at least one of the provisions in the final rule, related to fugitive emissions monitoring, did not get the full consideration by the agency that it should have prior to the final rule being published. Pruitt specifically mentioned the provisions on requesting and receiving an alternative means of emissions limitations and inclusion of low-production wells. Because those provisions were not included in the proposed rule, industry did not have an opportunity to comment on them. Pruitt said that his letter does not address other requests for reconsideration in the API or other petitions.
“It is INGAA’s understanding that EPA’s announcement of its intent to reconsider the new source methane rule includes all of the fugitive emissions monitoring requirements,” said Cathy Landry, spokeswoman for the INGAA. “As a result, this would encompass INGAA’s concerns.”

INGAA was unhappy with the rule’s provisions dictating quarterly monitoring requirements at compressor stations and timeframes for repairs there. INGAA CEO Don Santa also complained about the leak detection and repair approach (LDRA), which, he said, is more costly and less effective than Directed Inspection and Maintenance, which is what INGAA proposed.

The API petition objected to many of the LDAR provisions, too. In his May 3 letter thanking Pruitt for the 90-day delay, Howard Feldman, senior director, Regulatory and Scientific Affairs, API, commented, “API’s members look forward to EPA moving expeditiously with this temporary relief. API’s members would benefit from additional guidance, either in the notice of the stay or in supplemental documents, concerning the scope of the stay and how it affects inter-related leak monitoring and repair requirements.”

That May 2016 final rule was issued under the Clean Air Act and represented the Obama administration’s next step in limiting greenhouse gas emissions, of which methane is the most environmentally hazardous. Natural gas pipeline companies will have to both reduce methane emissions and plug equipment leaks when they become apparent.

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