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The Week Ahead

White House Seeks To Promote 'Green' Water Infrastructure; Senate Poised To Back EPA Cuts

Posted: September 17, 2012

Not many environmental issues are getting close attention this election season but the Obama administration appears to be giving some high-profile attention to water quality issues. Top administration officials will be appearing at an invitation-only conference this week to discuss ways to advance “green infrastructure” techniques to limit stormwater runoff -- a major problem for many municipal governments.

A number of other major EPA policy issues are up for discussion, including greenhouse gas permits, perchlorate drinking water standards and chemical risk assessments.

Lawmakers are unlikely to be spending much time in Washington before the election but they will be doing some legislative work in the few remaining days, including approving a resolution funding EPA and other agencies through next March. That will give lawmakers time to put off some hard decisions about the planned budget sequester, which is slated to take effect Jan. 2.

The House is also slated to vote on a package of measures blocking a host of EPA rules and a House panel will consider ways to allow more states to permit “dredge-and-fill” activities.

At EPA

Clean Water Act issues appear to be one of the few environmental issues getting close attention from the Obama administration during the election season. The White House is hosting an invitation-only conference Sept. 20 to shine a spotlight on ways that green infrastructure techniques, such as permeable pavement, rain gardens, green roofs or swales, can limit stormwater runoff from impermeable surfaces. The issue is a major concern for many municipalities that have been subject to EPA enforcement actions to address sewer overflows due to inadequate “grey” infrastructure. But environmentalists and labor proponents say that green infrastructure methods can be a more cost-effective, environmentally friendly and job-creating tool than other infrastructure programs.

Many have said that EPA's recent agreement with Philadelphia to control sewer overflows through green infrastructure projects could sever as a national model.

According to EPA, the conference will bring together invited experts and stakeholders to define the range of benefits of green-infrastructure practices; identify barriers to implementing the practice, evaluate options and opportunities for funding, financing and valuing green infrastructure; and develop practical actions that government, communities and others can take to promote greater implementation of green infrastructure to address urban stormwater.

Speakers include top officials from the White House, Office of Management & Budget, EPA, as well as state water regulators, environmentalists and municipal water officials.

In a recent response to questions from a top science group, both President Obama, and Gov. Mitt Romney, his GOP challenger, committed to do more to protect water quality.

The issues will continue to gain attention between now and the election, including EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's address to the Water Environment Federation conference Oct. 1 in New Orleans. The conference is titled “Rethinking Water Services: Navigating Our Water’s Future,” and is being billed as an opportunity to “explore a new vision for water management.”

Other upcoming water quality events include America's Great Watershed Initiative Summit in St. Louis Sept. 26-27; “Restoring our Rivers: A National & Regional Perspective on Urban Stormwater,” slated for Bentonville, AR, Oct. 4-5; and the 2012 Urban Water Sustainability Leadership Conference, slated for Cincinnati, Oct. 15 -- 17.

EPA's Clean Air Act Advisory Committee (CAAAC) begins its next meeting Sept. 18 but the panel is punting on endorsing steps the agency should adopt to streamline greenhouse gas (GHG) permits.

An interim report slated for release lists many options for streamlining the permits without advocating any in particular, suggesting instead that EPA issue a rule to take comment on the options. One informed source says the panel never expected to be able to reach agreement on a priority list of streamlining measures, given that environmentalists on the workgroup opposed any streamlining options from the beginning.

Other items on the agenda include air program priorities and updates from EPA air chief Gina McCarthy and her deputy, Janet McCabe; discussion of EPA's Ozone Advance program, its revamped voluntary program encouraging states to make early cuts in ozone in exchange for benefits such as potential credit for those reductions in plans for meeting the agency's ozone air standard; and EPA's new Energy Efficiency/RenewableEnergy Road Map, its plan clarifying how states can win air quality credits for clean projects

Other EPA events we are watching:

A federal appellate court holds oral arguments Sept. 18 in environmentalists' lawsuit challenging the agency's air toxics rule for the gold mining sector. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is slated to hear arguments in Desert Citizens Against Pollution and Sierra Club v. EPA, a case in which environmentalists charge EPA unlawfully decided not to limit air toxics other than mercury or impose controls on "fugitive" emissions in its gold mine processing facilities emissions rule.

EPA holds a public meeting Sept. 19 on whether to approve California's “Clean Car” rules -- a package of measures addressing ozone, particulate matter and greenhouse gas emissions from passenger and other vehicles. Debate over whether EPA should grant the state's request and waive the Clean Air Act could be a harbinger for the debate over EPA's upcoming Tier III fuels and vehicles rules.

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel Sept. 17 begins its review of EPA's controversial chemical risk assessment program, known as the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). Congress had originally urged EPA to have the academy review as many as three pending risk assessments, including its arsenic assessment. But the academy instead sought to conduct a comprehensive review of the controversial program's scientific practices in lieu of reviewing two chemical assessments that lawmakers had originally sought.

EPA and NAS have agreed on a unique review for the draft arsenic assessment but there is no word yet on when that review will begin.

EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water is hosting a public meeting on its plan to develop a proposed drinking water standard for perchlorate -- the ubiquitous rocket fuel and fertilizer ingredient. But development of the standard may take some time as the agency's science advisers are urging EPA to depart from its traditional approach for crafting drinking water health goals for the contaminant perchlorate and instead employ a novel modeling technique that could quell industry and drinking water utilities' fears over the agency's initial approach.

In Congress

Lawmakers are unlikely to be spending much time in Washington before the election but they will be doing some legislative work in the few remaining days.

The Senate is expected to vote later this week to approve the House-approved continuing resolution to fund EPA and other agencies until next March, putting aside bigger questions on how lawmakers will address the looming sequestration that is set to take effect Jan. 1 under the terms of the Budget Control Act (BCA).

Under the 2011 law, EPA is expected to take a cut of up to 9 percent of its FY12 enacted budget as part of the deficit reduction deal President Obama made with Congress last year. A report released Sept. 14 by the White House Office of Management and Budget detailed roughly $716 million in cuts to EPA, including $293 million from the state and tribal assistance grants account and $220 million from EPA's program account, taking the agency down to a total appropriation of $7.7 billion.

The House is slated to vote later this week on a suite of five bills -- packaged into H.R. 3409 -- intended to curb EPA rules addressing the coal sector. The package, much of which has already passed the House, include measures to require a cumulative impacts assessment of several key EPA rules and block them until the analysis is complete, bar the agency from issuing rules targeting greenhouse gases, with the exception of some vehicle rules, and block the Interior Department from issuing its pending stream buffer zone rule. On coal ash, the package includes a new Senate compromise limiting EPA's authority to regulate disposal, which may help build bicameral support for the coal ash measure even though the overall package of bills is unlikely to pass the Senate.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee's energy and power subcommittee holds a Sept. 20 hearing to make the case for H.R. 6172, a bill that prohibits EPA from finalizing its proposed greenhouse gas performance standards for new coal-fired power plants until carbon capture and storage (CCS) is found to be technologically and economically feasible.

But the bill could be undermined by Canadian officials' just-unveiled rule setting similar performance standards for new and existing power plants, which provides a pathway for existing units to install CCS.

The CCS hearing was postponed from Sept. 14.

The House transportation committee's water resources and environment subcommittee holds a Sept. 20 hearing on potential opportunities for more states to begin issuing “dredge-and-fill” permits under the Clean Water Act. Since passage of the water law, only two states -- Michigan and New Jersey -- have assumed permitting authority from the Army Corps of Engineers, but both state and Corps officials have indicated over the years that a host of issues must still be addressed before more states are delegated the authority.

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