EPA water chief Grumbles discusses infrastructure, wastewater blending

Cities and towns across the country will need hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade aging water infrastructure. But who should pay for those water systems? Will Congress restore funding to the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund? And how should the U.S. EPA proceed on the controversial issue of wastewater blending? Ben Grumbles, head of the U.S. EPA's Office of Water, weighs in on these questions and looks ahead to possible agency action on new arsenic and perchlorate standards.


Darren Samuelsohn: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in the E&ETV studios in Washington is Ben Grumbles, the head of the Water Office at the U.S. EPA. Mr. Grumbles thanks for being here.

Ben Grumbles: My pleasure.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's start right off. Back in your old stomping grounds, the House of Representatives, in the last couple of weeks has been holding some hearings on the idea of establishing a water trust fund. EPA wasn't there to testify. I'm kind of curious, what would be your position if you had testified in front of lawmakers about the idea of establishing a water trust fund?

Ben Grumbles: Well, we would be fully supportive of continued investments in the nation's water infrastructure and developing tools for sustainability and for continuing the important and successful model of the State revolving funds and drawing attention to the importance of water infrastructure.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you see a distinction between the idea that they're talking about here, of a water trust fund, and a clean water state revolving loan fund, the existing program?

Ben Grumbles: There is a distinction. I think that the country benefits when you focus on rate payers paying full cost, not federal taxpayers, but it's important to continue to have a federal investment in seed money in revolving funds and support revolving natures, not necessarily new trust funds based on federal taxpayer money.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK, so in a sense, is it clear that the administration probably would oppose legislation on the idea if Congress tried to move a bill?

Ben Grumbles: Well it would be premature to say that. I think we're very eager to see a congressional debate play out and provide full technical assistance and answer questions as members come up with questions about water financing.

Darren Samuelsohn: Are we dealing with an unfunded mandate here? A lot of people call it an unfunded mandate in the sense of aging water systems and how much money is needed around the country. What's your perspective on that?

Ben Grumbles: Well the Clean Water Act has very important mandates for fishable, swimmable waters and it's a public, well accepted mandate and the agency works hard to fulfill that goal. We also provide funding and they're important funds from state and local levels. I think some communities really feel the pinch on meeting the important goals of the Clean Water Act and we want to provide tools to help them meet those goals.

Darren Samuelsohn: Every year EPA proposes its budget to Congress and for the last couple of years you have proposed cuts to the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund, which is the system for aging wastewater systems. You've given an explanation every year as to why the cuts need to happen. Can you explain that to me? Every year I'm a little bit more confused I guess about what EPA's position is on this. Why are we seeing these proposed cuts?

Ben Grumbles: Well the president laid out a plan in 2003 that even though the State revolving funds were no longer technically authorized that it made sense, it was a good investment of the public funds to provide seed money, $6.8 billion through 2011. It averaged out to 850 million a year in 2003 and what that would do is that would lead to a perpetual self sustaining revolving level of $3.4 billion a year. So we're staying true to that commitment, but also providing additional tools for sustainability.

Darren Samuelsohn: On that $850 million, which I think is what the president's proposal was this year, if you do continue to propose that year in and year out up through 2011, does that maintain and satisfy I guess the needs of communities across the country?

Ben Grumbles: Well we want to work with Congress and the appropriators and that doesn't always result in $850 million a year. The president's proposal this year with $730 million, but that's supplemented by all the important work we're doing to provide tools of sustainability. There are additional funds, increases in some of the state grant programs and developing smarter regulatory approaches.

Darren Samuelsohn: Why do lawmakers continue to insist on boosting it up to $1.35 billion?

Ben Grumbles: Congress is also interested in site specific earmarks and we recognize Congress will exercise that prerogative, but our view is, is that that money is best spent not if it's put into a large number of earmarks, but if it's invested in State revolving funds.

Darren Samuelsohn: But the $1.35 [billion] isn't earmarks. There was actually a debate in the House of Representatives on the floor where Congressman Obey was talking about offsets and he was talking about taking money away from earmarks. So he was talking $1.35 billion totally irregardless of earmarks. Why do they just want to spend $400 [million], $500 million more than EPA and the Bush administration is asking for? I know it was the Clinton administration too, that was proposing these cuts, but why do lawmakers want to take it up just that extra half billion dollars which they make a big deal about?

Ben Grumbles: Well, the administration sees the value of investments in clean water as well. I think there's just an honest disagreement in terms of the priorities. For instance, for the environmental agencies, 40 percent of our budget goes towards making water clean, safe and secure and we're more committed to developing tools of sustainability and keeping to the president's pledge of the long-term revolving level of $3.4 billion and we think we can get there.

Darren Samuelsohn: And it's impossible for the administration, I've heard Stephen Johnson testified before Congress, I mean you can't give your entire budget, your $8 billion a year, to wastewater infrastructure. That's just not sustainable.

Ben Grumbles: That's true. Over the history of the water infrastructure in the country, 95 percent of funds for local infrastructure are paid by rate payers, those who live in the area and benefit from the sewage or drinking water facilities. That's not something that's going to change and we recognize that. So we want to focus on building additional tools, water conservation, water efficiency, asset management techniques to truly help ratepayers meet the demands of the Clean Water Act.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's turn to another fun subject.

Ben Grumbles: Sure.

Darren Samuelsohn: Wastewater sewage blending, an issue I guess when storms happen around the country. EPA was reviewing a process for policy here and right before the House was ready to vote on the EPA budget last month you announced a change in your policy or you said you weren't going to finalize a policy. You were reviewing thousands and thousands and thousands of comments, but what EPA's plan going forward with blending?

Ben Grumbles: Our position is to always focus on prevention, prevention of sewage spills and also maximizing the flow of wastewater that gets to the facility so that it doesn't spill into creeks or streams or backup in basements. So what our plan is, is to focus on the technologies and the cost effective approaches to improve the treatment and to meet the Clean Water Act requirements. You hear a lot from communities about the costs of treating sewage. We think blending may occur in limited circumstances, but we wanted to make sure that people emphasized and realized blending is not a long-term solution. It's just one tool in the toolbox.

Darren Samuelsohn: When it happens is it a danger to public health?

Ben Grumbles: We have information about impacts of sewage overflows and that's really not related to the blending practice. It's more to combined or sanitary sewer overflows that occur where the wastewater never even gets to the sewage treatment plant and that is a concern and it's an enforcement priority for the EPA to prevent that from happening.

Darren Samuelsohn: On the litigation front, I know EPA is being challenged for the different perspectives, I guess, that have been offered on the regional verses, I guess we're waiting for sort of maybe a federal standard or federal guidance. Can you give us any clarification? I mean if you're being sued in I think it's one region right now for some policies, I think out of Philadelphia or Pennsylvania. How is this going to get squared up?

Ben Grumbles: Well, as is often the case, there are different perspectives. There's some utilities that are suing the agency on clarifying the blending policy and our priority is to complete the legal analysis and make sure that prevention is always a priority and that the flow of sewage that gets to the treatment plant is maximized. So we hope to be able to wrap up the analysis in the near future and to have the greater clarity that some say they'd like to have.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Let's turn to drinking water now.

Ben Grumbles: Sure.

Darren Samuelsohn: Which is another subject under your purview. Arsenic, an issue that was incredibly controversial early on in the Bush administration. You've got a deadline coming up in January the first, I guess it's the implementation deadline for water systems to get down to 10 ppb levels of arsenic. Can you give us any sense, how many communities are not going to be able to meet this in January 2006?

Ben Grumbles: We're fully focused on getting the communities across the country the tools they need to meet that 10 ppb protective standard. What we're focused on is also providing the states and communities the most effective, cost effective and affordable technologies. There are also, under limited circumstances, if communities can demonstrate that they need additional time to come into compliance, they'll be able to get extensions. We think it's important, first of all, to protect public health and to meet the drinking water standard, but also to deal with the world of the possible and what's practical and sometimes that may mean that some communities will need additional time. It's important that we continue to invest in innovative, cost effective, affordable technology. So we're doing that too.

Darren Samuelsohn: Ballpark figure, we've, I guess, heard 2,000 to 3,000 rural communities across the country, does that sound like it's within --

Ben Grumbles: I know there are communities across the country that are looking for additional assistance and guidance and we're fully prepared to give that to them and work towards complying with the standard, while also continuing to update the science and gather more information on what's the most protective and affordable standard for drinking water.

Darren Samuelsohn: How will you test? How will you monitor at this point? Is EPA going to be going around community by community --

Ben Grumbles: Monitoring is always an important part of ensuring compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and our partners are the states. The states implement the drinking water standards with us and so it will be a shared responsibility.

Darren Samuelsohn: In terms of the health effects, you get someone like Senator Pete Domenici who stands on the Senate floor and says, I've been drinking water out in Albuquerque, New Mexico, or New Mexico my entire life and I'm perfectly fine. People, you know congressmen, senators are saying this, people out West are saying this, I mean what is EPA's reaction when you have people who are saying they've been drinking the water and no health effects?

Ben Grumbles: Well it is a priority for the agency to have scientifically sound, environmentally protective and legally defensible standards. We've spent a lot of time analyzing the science on arsenic and concluded that the 10 ppb standard was the right approach, that there may be circumstances for local flexibility, for extensions and compliance, for possible variances. But on a subject as controversial as that where there will be a difference of opinion the priority is to continue to review the scientific literature and the epidemiological studies and we're committed to doing that.

Darren Samuelsohn: While Senator Domenici, for example, or anybody might not personally be experiencing health risks or health effects, others might be is kind of what it boils down to?

Ben Grumbles: There are demonstrated health effects. You know when we asked the National Academy of Sciences to do work for us, that was a primary charge, was to delve into the health effects and arsenic is a toxic. We want to take that matter very seriously.

Darren Samuelsohn: Another drinking water issue, EPA has given an indication that they're going to be setting some, you're going to be setting some first ever standards for percolate --

Ben Grumbles: Perchlorate?

Darren Samuelsohn: Perchlorate, thank you, a contaminant in rocket fuel. Can you give us any sense, when is EPA going to introduce this standard? Also, I understand that some of the studies that you might have originally based your ideas on, there might be some questions about them.

Ben Grumbles: Well, perchlorate is a substance that's getting a lot of attention, a lot of attention from EPA and other agencies, state and federal. We asked for the National Academy of Sciences to give us their best work on the health effects. They did that just recently and we followed up and incorporated their findings so that we finalized a reference dose, a specific numeric number for perchlorate. We also established a drinking water equivalent level. The important thing is that we're continuing to do all the research we need under the Safe Drinking Water Act to gather the occurrence data, to continue to review the health effects, to look at the relative sources of perchlorate other than just drinking water. We're putting a priority on that, but we still haven't reached a decision as to whether or not to set a standard other than the Safe Drinking Water Act. We have to comply with the best available science requirements and procedures under the act and we're fully committed to doing that.

Darren Samuelsohn: It sounds like it might take a little while though before we get to an actual proposal or final standard.

Ben Grumbles: Well we're focused on doing it right and getting the tools and scientific information to the public as quickly as possible.

Darren Samuelsohn: The EPA inspector general on the issue of permitting just issued a report recently saying that there was a huge backlog in terms of the national pollution discharge elimination system permits, which are the permits I guess for industries all across the country that emit from point sources into the waters. You've got a backlog in permits. Can you give any sense, what EPA's reaction? How are you going to handle whatever needs to be implemented?

Ben Grumbles: Well before the inspector general even started looking at the subject, we saw all that over the years before this administration came into place. In fact, in 1988 there was a growing backlog of permits. So for us a priority has been to launch the most comprehensive review of State Clean Water Act permitting programs in the history of the program. We call this the Permitting for Environmental Results Project.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Ben Grumbles: And we're seeing significant reductions in the backlogs. We've gone from a percentage that's 30 percent or more of the expired permits to one that's more in the 10 to 15 percent, but that's still not good enough. So what we want to do is to continue to work with our state partners to find more efficient ways to renew and include more protective and environmentally sensitive permits. We're giving that a high priority and think it's important to work with our state partners on making the most effective Clean Water Act permitting programs possible, reducing backlogs and increasing the innovative approaches.

Darren Samuelsohn: Jumping to another subject, I guess security has become something for EPA to be dealing with, post-9/11 especially. We were told, I guess, actually it was the EPA's budget proposal this year and you guys requested $45 million for something called the Water Sentinel Program. So far Congress has shown really no interest in funding it at the level that you've asked for. I think it's around $5 million, so it's a big proposed cut. Is EPA even interested in going forward with this idea, this Water Sentinel Program, and what is it?

Ben Grumbles: Well water security is a priority for the agency. Homeland security is a priority for the administration and there is a tremendous amount of interest in water security in the Congress. We've spent $154 million over the last couple of years to implement the bioterrorism act to further secure water systems across the country, to make them safer through vulnerability assessments and through developing tools and training, to be more sensitive to potential threats in this post-9/11 world. The president's budget requests has the first of its kind approach of a water sentinel monitoring system, and we're committed to working with Congress to provide funding to get that launched. It's very important and we'll continue to work on that.

Darren Samuelsohn: If they can't fund it this year will you come back next year and asked for funding again?

Ben Grumbles: We're working with Congress on that to get some funding to get that launched and we're also doing a lot of initiatives on our own pursuant to a Homeland Security Presidential Directive. It's going to lead to increased water security and surveillance of potential contaminants in water.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. We covered a whole cast of subjects, but thank you very much Ben Grumbles for coming on the show.

Ben Grumbles: Sure.

Darren Samuelsohn: We'll have you on again sometime.

Ben Grumbles: OK.

Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time, this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint.

[End of Audio]



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