Changing federal scene may affect national water and wastewater issues in 2005

Heather McTavish Doucet
Manager, Government Relations
APWA Washington Office

The 109th Congress, which reconvened January 3, includes numerous changes within the Cabinet and throughout Congress. These changes are likely to affect the landscape for national water issues. One of the most dramatic changes is the departure of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Leavitt. President Bush nominated Leavitt to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). At press time, no replacement had been named to the top EPA post.

Senate Democrats and Republicans have also announced new committee assignments. On the Environment and Public Works (EPW) panel, the committee with jurisdiction over the issues affecting public works, Democrats Harry Reid (NV), Bob Graham (FL) and Ron Wyden (OR) are leaving the committee, while Frank Lautenberg (NJ) and Barak Obama (IL) are joining it. Departing for new assignments are Republicans Michael Crapo (ID), John Cornyn (TX), Craig Thomas (WY) and Wayne Allard (CO). New Republicans on the EPW will be David Vitter (LA), John Thune (SD), Jim DeMint (SC) and Johnny Isakson (GA).

It is APWA's hope that these changes, coupled with the pressing need for additional investment at the national level for water and wastewater infrastructure issues, will propel water and wastewater issues to the forefront of priorities in the 109th Congress.

A look at the national topics facing drinking water and wastewater in 2005:

Blending guidance
In early December 2004, the Washington Post reported that EPA is close to issuing a final guidance on blending. EPA claims they have not made a final decision on the guidance, but agency staff reportedly has begun to brief senior political appointees on the plan.

Blending would allow authorities to release a blend of fully-treated and partially-treated sewage during peak flows. The proposal was first released in November 2003. APWA submitted comments supporting the pending guidance on blending in February 2004. Those comments are available here: /documents/advocacy/Submitted%20Documents/blending%20FINAL.doc.

Continue to check the APWA website for additional information.

Throughout much of 2003 and 2004, Congress debated providing liability immunity to the producers of gasoline containing the fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), a substance in gasoline that helps limit air pollution because it burns cleaner. Releases of MTBE are known to contaminate water supplies. The health risks of MTBE range from nausea to kidney or liver damage and even cancer. The inclusion of the liability waiver has been blamed for the bill's congressional deadlock.

The liability immunity language shifts the responsibility for contamination from the MTBE producers to local governments. Small gasoline stations, public water systems, and communities, none of whom were responsible for the contamination, will be the ones forced to bear MTBE cleanup costs, which total more than $29 billion nationwide.
The liability waiver would also retroactively block hundreds of communities' legitimate suits that have already been filed.

In December, APWA held a congressional briefing in an effort to educate congressional staff about the issues facing public works. Craig Perkins, Environment and Public Works Director for the City of Santa Monica, CA, discussed his city's experience with MTBE contamination.

In late 1995 and early 1996, Santa Monica first became aware of the fuel additive and contaminant MTBE present in the city's drinking water wells. Between February and October of 1996, Santa Monica shut down seven of the City's eleven water wells, representing 71% of the local water well production and supplied about one-half of Santa Monica's total daily water demand. As a result of the contamination, in June of 1996 the Santa Monica City Council approved a 25% emergency MTBE surcharge on every water customer to pay for the additional $3.25 in annual costs for the purchase of outside water to replace the lost well production. These surcharge revenues did not cover the City's legal and technical analysis costs.

Santa Monica filed a lawsuit against 16 separate oil companies in June 2000. A full settlement was reached with all oil companies in December 2003. $92 million was paid to the City for legal and other costs. The settlement required the defendants to provide a funding guarantee for the entire design, permitting, construction and operation of a water treatment facility to remove contamination from a well field.

Craig Perkins' presentation outlined for congressional staff why the MTBE liability waiver would be so harmful:

  • Rewards corporate misbehavior
  • Sets a terrible precedent for other products
  • Jeopardizes public health and inevitably results in more drinking water contamination
  • Forces the water customer (victim) to pay for cleanup instead of the polluter

The energy bill did not pass Congress this session, but lawmakers have indicated that passage is a priority for the 109th Congress. The leadership for the U.S. House of Representatives remains steadfast in their commitment to include the liability waiver language in a final energy bill. APWA and a coalition of local government will continue to work to block passage of the energy bill if it includes the liability waiver.

Investment for water and wastewater infrastructure
When Congress enacted the Water Pollution Control Act in 1972, it stated that "the lack of adequate funding of grants to assist states and localities in constructing sewage treatment plants is causing critical problems," and noted that "the need for federal spending is rising rapidly." When Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996, an important finding was that "the federal government needs to provide assistance to communities to help the communities meet federal drinking water requirements."

The necessary funding, however, has not been forthcoming. Many studies estimate a huge gap between our nation's water pollution control needs and the committed resources, with the Water Infrastructure Network (WIN) estimating a gap of $23 billion a year over the next 20 years.

Facing similar gaps between needs and resources for critical national infrastructure, Congress has established trust funds supported by dedicated taxes. For example, Congress has established trust funds for transportation infrastructure ($35 billion/year) and airport infrastructure ($8 billion/year).

To address the dramatic and growing gap between needs and available funds, WIN, of which APWA is a member, has developed the Clean and Safe Water Trust Fund Act that would make several important changes. First and foremost, it creates a new Clean and Safe Water Trust Fund, authorized at $45 billion over five years and funded from a bottled beverage tax of five cents (excluding dairy and juice products). The trust fund component would be supplemented with the State Revolving Loan funds. It also creates several new programs to address persistent problems, including grant programs to meet a wide range of water pollution and drinking water system needs; improvements in technology, management, and research; greater assistance to states; increased attention to fisheries habitat and nonpoint source pollution; and greater funding for critical regional programs. The WIN coalition plans to introduce the legislation in January 2005. For a copy of the draft legislation, contact Heather Doucet at hdoucet@apwa.net or (202) 218-6732.