From The Editor | April 24, 2015

What's Going On At The EPA?


By Kevin Westerling,

Three U.S. EPA officials share their perspective on the hottest topics in water and wastewater and the current state of rulemaking.

I recently attended the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) Washington Forum, April 13 to 15, allowing me rare access to several key members of the EPA. Here are some takeaways from their presentations that may serve as a guidepost for future utility operations.

Peter Grevatt, Director of the EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water (OGWDW)

Grevatt’s responsibilities include the development and implementation of national drinking water standards, oversight and funding of state drinking water programs, and the implementation of source water protection and underground injection control programs. To say he covers a lot of ground is an understatement, but he was able to simplify the many issues he sees at OGWDW into two over-arching pain points: scale and source water quality.

Scale: Of the roughly 155,000 public water systems in U.S., 77 percent (~120,000) are “small” (serving 501 to 3,300 people) or “very small” (25 to 500 people). Grevatt said that many of these smaller systems struggle to meet regulatory requirements due to their lack of resources, calling for technological and managerial innovation as the solution.

Source water quality: Grevatt identified a subset of concerns, including…

  • Algal toxins – Ever since Toledo turned off its water, algal pollution has been a hot topic for the drinking water, wastewater, and industrial water sectors alike. As far as drinking water regulations, Grevatt promised there is no federal maximum contaminant level (MCL) pending, commenting that “You can’t place the problem solely on the utility.” Instead, the EPA plans to develop a health advisory — guidance for how to handle algal toxins — before the end of spring.
  • Infrastructure – The investment shortfall for water/wastewater infrastructure, or the amount of money needed to fix these systems, is somewhere in the order of $600 billion, according to Grevatt. Drinking water needs account for more than half of that figure, mostly for pipeline maintenance. There are more than 700 water main breaks a day in the U.S., or about one every other minute, Grevatt noted.
  • Lead and copper – Grevatt described the Lead and Copper Rule as a “very complicated…very important rule.” Complicated because residents have to send samples to the utility to gauge corrosion impact, but where and how best to sample? Grevatt said that “best practices need to be sorted out,” and indicated that the Reduction of Lead In Drinking Water Act may also need revisions to sort out issues of clarity and complexity.
  • Strontium and perchlorate – While the EPA has made no final determination on the former, perchlorate will eventually get an MCL. Technology cost models for perchlorate treatment are being conducted by the EPA this summer/fall.

Elizabeth Southerland, Director of the Office of Science and Technology in the EPA Office of Water

Southerland leads a multidisciplinary staff of 130, charged with implementing major science, technology, and regulatory programs under the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

Like Grevatt, Southerland acknowledged the growing problem of toxic blue-green algae — technically Microcystis aeruginosa, also known cyanobacteria. She indicated that the EPA is working with states to develop their own strategies for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. Three approaches are accepted and “equally scientifically defensible,” according to Southerland, for developing numeric nutrient criteria (NNC):

  • Reference condition approach – Base NNC at levels consistent with those observed in relatively pristine (i.e., “reference”) water bodies
  • Stressor-response approach – Empirically derive statistical relationships between in situ nutrient concentrations and the response variable
  • Mechanistic modeling (process-based) approach – Systems using process-based load-response models, calibrated to site-specific data

(Definitions via LimnoTech/Water Environment Research Foundation)

Southerland stated that in lieu of regulations, the EPA is in the process of developing a 10-day health advisory for cyanobacteria, as well as one for P-FOS.

She added that there is still much technical assistance needed to gain compliance for ammonia — yet another problem nutrient — though the rule was finalized in 2013.

Looking toward the future, the Office of Science and Technology is in the initial phase (literature review) of assessing bacteriophage, as opposed to coliforms, as an indicator of fecal contamination. Southerland cited the rise of water reuse as a certain driver for the research.

Andrew Sawyers, Director of the U.S. EPA Office of Wastewater Management

Sawyer oversees management of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), but his discussion to WWEMA members centered on the “Buy American” provision requiring that iron and steel used in water/wastewater projects financed by Clean Water/Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF/DWSRF) programs must be made in America.

Despite opposition arguments, particularly from WWEMA, that “Buy American” actually hurts U.S. business and infrastructure interests, it is now the law of the land — at least until the September 30, 2015 expiration date. Until then, the fight to have the provision removed, renewed, or amended will wage on.

In the meantime, Sawyer noted that the EPA will grant waivers to the rule if:

  1. applying these requirements would be inconsistent with the public interest;
  2. iron and steel products are not produced in the U.S. in sufficient and reasonably available quantities and of a satisfactory quality; or
  3. inclusion of iron and steel products produced in the U.S. will increase the cost of the overall project by more than 25 percent.

He additionally noted that external linings and coatings applied to iron and steel products are not subject to the rule.

Sawyers also talked about the importance of stormwater and graywater reuse, referencing a National Research Council report analyzing the costs, risks, and benefits, expected to be published shortly (expected this spring).

Finally, he issued a reminder that the EPA offers an Integrated Planning Framework for CWA compliance that, though it has existed for years, goes largely underutilized. The plan allows municipalities to work toward compliance on a priority basis — thereby postponing and receiving EPA latitude on competing and overlapping requirements — when municipal resources prove to be limited.

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