Coalition Urges Congress to Help Control Farm Runoff

May 1, 2012
The Healthy Waters Coalition has urged Congress, during its reauthorization of the Farm Bill, to link conservation compliance requirements to federal farm subsidies in order to reduce runoff pollution from fertilizers.

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The Healthy Waters Coalition has urged Congress, during its reauthorization of the Farm Bill, to link conservation compliance requirements to federal farm subsidies in order to reduce runoff pollution from fertilizers.

The coalition represents municipal water and wastewater utilities, state regulators, agricultural and conservation sectors.

The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) is a member of the coalition. AMWA Executive Director Diane VanDe Hei said that while drinking water systems will do what is necessary to keep their finished water clean, "The most effective solution is to keep excessive nutrients out of source water in the first place."

The alliance said that according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 50% of rivers, streams, and lakes and nearly 60% of bays and estuaries are impaired because of excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff.

Ed Schafer, a former Department of Agriculture Secretary and former North Dakota Governor, said, "Agricultural runoff is a dominant source of these nutrients, and farmers need sustainable, economically viable technologies to reduce nutrient output."

The coalition made three sets of recommendations to Congress: better target conservation programs for watersheds affected by excessive nutrient run-off; linking federal agricultural subsidies with practices that avoid adverse water quality effects from agricultural operations; and better monitoring and evaluation tools to help farmers gather data on nutrient abatement effectiveness.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies has approved a resolution supporting the collection of water quality data for nutrients to ensure scientifically based decision-making regarding watersheds.

Separately, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) said treating the farm runoff problem after the fact is increasingly expensive, difficult and unsustainable. It said farmers apply more than 12 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer and 8 million tons of phosphorus fertilizer yearly.

"Most farm operations are exempt from the pollution control requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, and few states have little authority to compel farmers to reduce water contamination," EWG said.

Fracturing Concerns

The issue of groundwater contamination from the hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells continues to percolate through Congress and the administration.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order in April creating an interagency working group -- including the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior -- to coordinate research associated with development of natural gas and oil from shale formations.

Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of shale plays pushed U.S. oil production to its highest level in 8 years and gas production to an all-time record in 2011. As a result, oil import dependence declined from 57% in 2008 to 45% in 2011 -- the lowest level since 1995.

Also, the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued draft safeguards to reduce the risks to groundwater from hydraulic fracturing on BLM lands, national forests, national wildlife refuges and other federal properties.

At EPA, regulators issued a draft guidance to regulate the use of diesel in hydraulic fracturing fluids. The 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act, except when diesel is used.

Environmental groups said EPA should have issued a full ban on diesel. Jessica Ennis, an Earthjustice legislative representative, said, "Nobody wants to drink diesel-infused tap water. That's why the oil and gas industry needs to stop pumping diesel underground during fracking."

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in the face of strong opposition, EPA issued the guidance for its regulators, enabling the agency to sidestep congressional and legal oversight. "What this administration couldn't achieve through legislation, it is trying to achieve through guidance," he said.

Separately, the National Ground Water Association has renewed its call for a more research into hydraulic fracturing. "Additional studies, research, and monitoring related to the potential for groundwater contamination from the installation, hydraulic fracturing, operation, and maintenance of oil and gas wells are needed, given the growing use of horizontal wells and hydraulic fracturing," it said.

Court Ruling

A federal judge has ruled that EPA overstepped its authority last year when it revoked Clean Water Act permits, issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for an Arch Coal surface mine in West Virginia.

The case before District of Columbia Judge Amy Berman Jackson involved the 2300-acre Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, which was to be the largest mountaintop-removal coal mine in Appalachia. The $250 million Spruce Mine would bury seven miles of existing streams and valleys with mining overburden.

EPA vetoed the Corps permit in January 2011, the first time since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 that the agency had canceled a water permit after it was issued. It explained that the potential harm to streams and watershed areas surrounding the project could be significant.

Judge Berman ruled EPA could not "unilaterally modify or revoke a permit that has been duly issued by the Corps." She added, "This is a stunning power for an agency to arrogate to itself when there is absolutely no mention of it in the statute."

Environmental groups lamented the court decision and the West Virginia Coal Association praised it. The National Mining Association said, "The current permitting process is already a protracted and complicated affair. If we are to encourage investments, grow our economy and create jobs, companies need the certitude their success in obtaining permits will not be later robbed by the whims of EPA."

Also regarding West Virginia coal mining, three environmental groups have sued two mining companies in federal court for discharging pollutants into state streams.

The Sierra Club, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition sued Elk Run Coal Co. and Alex Energy for alleged discharges into the Laurel Creek and Twentymile Creek watersheds.

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