Seismic Shift at the EPA?

The D.C. quake led to evacuations that snuffed heated negotiations at the EPA over new beach water quality criteria.

I flew out to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with Nancy Stoner, the EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Water, to help voice environmental community concerns about the direction of the National Beach Water Quality Criteria due out in 2012. The NRDC’s Steve Fleischli, a longtime friend, joined me for the meeting with Stoner and about a dozen Office of Water staffers in the EPA East building. Other enviros from Surfrider Foundation, Heal the Bay and New Jersey’s Clean Ocean Action joined by phone.

We remain upset with the direction of the EPA draft criteria for a number of reasons. At a workshop in New Orleans earlier this year, and in a number of subsequent conference calls, EPA Office of Water staff made it clear that the proposed rules would be nearly identical to the 1986 criteria, marking almost no changes in 25 years. In some ways, the criteria will be even weaker than the 1986 version, despite more than two decades of new studies.

I had the privilege of taking the lead for the enviros in the meeting. I explained that EPA was considering an approach to beach water quality regulation that would be far less protective than California’s and would compound existing weaknesses in the 25-year-old criteria. Because I’ve spent those same 25 years working on beach water quality issues as an advocate, scientist, public health professional and legislative sponsor, I was pretty wound up.

About 50 minutes into today’s meeting, as I was attempting to make a key point, the ground started to move. Then the chandeliers started to sway.  The rock ‘n’ roll continued for nearly a minute, with some folks moving away from the light fixtures, others diving under the desk and still others crowding the door jamb.  There I stood, making a stand for greater health protection for swimmers and surfers during a 5.9 earthquake.

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A Bloomin’ Mess

Would the EPA call this impairment?

Does the scene in this photo count as algal impairment under the Clean Water Act?  I’m just curious if the folks in Florida that are attempting to blow up the Clean Water Act over proposed nutrient standards would agree that this is impairment.  After all, the kids appear to be enjoying themselves, and after all, isn’t that what recreational water contact is all about? Heal the Bay gets in a lot of fights on the definition of algal impairment with regulators and the regulated community.  When you see pictures like the ones from Qingdao in China, it makes you realize that the regulated community isn’t even willing to come part way on the issue.  If there is a Karenia bloom in Florida that poses a respiratory health risk to beach goers, is that an impairment?  If Malibu Creek has an antifreeze algae bloom that covers the entire creek for a quarter mile, is that impairment? The regulated community may argue that 10% algal cover for  30% of the time isn’t impairment (a definition previously used by some at EPA). But how can they look at pictures like those in China, Florida and Malibu Creek and not offer nutrient reduction recommendations?

Harmful algal blooms are a growing problem that are choking our nation’s rivers and coastal waters with devastating impacts to aquatic ecosystems.  Yet, the EPA and most states are still arguing over the right thing to do and completing an endless series of studies.  They should be requiring aggressive reductions in nutrient discharge loadings (nitrogen and phosphorus) and concentrations, and they should have done it years ago.

Unanswered Questions in Miami

The EPA didn't reveal new beach water quality monitoring criteria at its just concluded annual National Beach Conference. But there were other tidbits to share.

I spent last week at the EPA’s National Beach Conference in Miami, where I gave a couple of presentations, learned about the latest in beach water quality research, and heard from EPA on the upcoming criteria for measuring water quality.

EPA’s criteria haven’t been updated since 1986, and the new rules are required to be completed by the end of 2012 under a Consent Decree with the NRDC.  With the recent completion of a comprehensive research plan, EPA staff members have all the information they’ll use to develop the new criteria.

Unfortunately, within the first two hours of the conference it became clear that the EPA wasn’t far enough in criteria development to share anything new with conference participants.  Instead, we were told that the draft criteria will make their debut June 14-15 at a meeting in New Orleans.

Conference participants asked if the new criteria would be as protective as the existing ones. (Current criteria are based on an 8 in a 1,000 risk of stomach flu for swimmers at freshwater beaches and 19 in 1,000 for ocean beaches).  Also, they asked if the criteria would allow states, cities or counties to develop site-specific rules.  And would beach monitoring programs be required to use rapid methods to quantify fecal bacteria densities in a few hours rather than waiting until the next day?

All questions were left unanswered.

Despite the lack of clarity on the direction of the criteria, there were some noteworthy outcomes at the conference.

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Day and Night

EPA chief Lisa Jackson tests water in Compton Creek.

Wednesday was a rewarding whirlwind: An extraordinary afternoon in the Compton Creek, a stimulating evening roundtable at the Skirball, and an after-hours meal in Venice. 

A few weeks ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency reached out to Heal the Bay to let us know that chief Lisa Jackson would be visiting the L.A. area and that she wanted to visit Compton Creek.

Heal the Bay contacted Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ office and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority to set up a tour for Jackson at Compton Creek. The agreed-upon plan was to announce the long-anticipated purchase of the four-acre soft-bottomed section of Compton Creek and a request to Jackson for federal assistance to develop a flood-control improvement plan based on a low-impact development approach rather than raising the walls on the river.

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Paradise Lost

Enough Inhofe: Senators need to start thinking less about the welfare of the petroleum industry.

Today marks the one-month anniversary of the Gulf oil spill.  What are you doing to celebrate? On Tuesday, U.S. Sen James Inhofe, the infamous climate change denier, decided to give BP a $9.925 billion dollar gift by opposing the effort to raise the oil spill liability cap to $10 billion. That sure beats a Starbucks gift card. 

Inhofe’s bogus argument (similar to Alaska Sen. Murkowski’s excuse last week) is that increased liability cap would penalize small, mom-and-pop oil companies. (Are there any?)

Wake up Congress!! There shouldn’t be a liability cap at all!!  If the oil spill causes damages, then the companies responsible must be forced to pay the entire cost of cleanup. This seems fair and equitable. Our representatives need to start thinking about natural resources and economic damages rather than the welfare of the petroleum industry.

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Fish Justice

Heal the Bay's Angler Outreach team. The program has educated over 80,000 anglers over the past 8 years on the health risks of eating contaminated fish. Image:Heal the Bay

Usually, we hear about the need for Environmental Justice because of the health tragedies that were allowed to get out of control. Asthma rates near the ports. Cancer Alley along the lower Mississippi. Pesticide-induced Cancer clusters near Macfarland and now, the cleft palate cluster near Kettleman Hills’ Hazardous Waste Facility. Rarely does the public hear about an Environmental Justice win, without the associated, demonstrated environmental health tragedy.

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Déjà vu

Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant

Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant: 301(h) waiver denied!

Today’s guest blogger is Kirsten James, Water Quality Director at Heal the Bay

History has a habit of repeating itself. Nearly 25 years ago, Heal the Bay was born when Dorothy Green and her friends fought the Environmental Protection Agency’s 301(h) wavier for Los Angeles’ Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant. Despite Clean Water Act requirements for secondary treatment, Hyperion was spewing effluent with only primary treatment into the Santa Monica Bay and causing massive environmental damage. Contrary to what some argued, sewage was NOT good for the fish! Fortunately for the Bay and its inhabitants, Heal the Bay efforts were successful and Hyperion is now a world-class treatment facility.

Who would have thought that a quarter of a century later, Californians would be fighting the same battle again?

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