Publication / Inside EPA
February 7, 2014

Panel Approves Bill To Help Rural Areas Meet Drinking Water Standards

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) has unanimously approved legislation to re-authorize a Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) program to provide monetary assistance to rural communities, which often struggle to meet drinking water standards because they lack the economies of scale to fund necessary upgrades.

The panel Feb. 6 passed S. 864, which would reauthorize a 1996 SDWA program that allocates EPA funding to small communities through non profit organizations that help small public water systems. The funded assistance would include helping with on site technical support and assisting to implement monitoring plans, rules, regulations and water security enhancements. The bill is available on InsideEPA.com. (Doc. ID:2460653

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“[R]ural communities face special challenges in complying with federal safe drinking water regulations,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement after the vote. “This bill recognizes those challenges and gives communities the backing they need to fulfill these requirements in a cost-effective manner.” The bill has 17 bipartisan co-sponsors. There is also bipartisan companion legislation in the House, H.R. 654, sponsored by Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), that is pending in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Backers of S. 864 say it would be a necessary relief to small communities that often struggle to meet federal water standards because they are strapped for funds and resources. In a statement, the National Rural Water Association (NRWA) explained, “Small and rural communities often have a difficult time, due to their limited customer base, when it comes to providing safe water and compliance with federal standards. This is compounded by the fact that small and rural communities often have lower median household incomes and higher water rates compared to larger communities. As a result, the cost of compliance is often dramatically higher per household.”

Mike Keegan of NRWA said the EPA funding that would be funneled to local communities through the provisions of the bill “could be used (and has been used in the past) to assist communities adopt source water protection plans.” In the absence of EPA funding in recent years, rural communities have had to rely on Agriculture Department programs that provide water infrastructure development funding.

“Additional EPA funding could be, and should be, used to expand the initiative within the EPA,” Keegan said.

Wicker’s bill follows efforts by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) in the 111th and 112th congresses to ease drinking water compliance burdens for rural communities. Inhofe introduced legislation in the 112th Congress, S. 999, that would have provided technical assistance to small communities as well as eased some SDWA requirements in rural areas. Inhofe added the technical assistance provisions after then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010 rejected Republican efforts in the 111th Congress to ease drinking water standards for low-income areas, saying SDWA standards are health-based protections and there are other means to provide financial assistance to utilities.

At the markup, Wicker used the recent chemical spill in West Virginia as an example of a situation where federal aid under the proposed bill would help rural communities.

“As the recent events in West Virginia illustrated, it’s profoundly important that communities know their drinking water is safe,” Wicker said. “I look forward to these bills being brought up for consideration in a timely fashion on the Senate floor.”

During the January spill in Charles Town, WV, 7,500 gallons of coal-cleaning chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) and another substance, a mixture of glycol ethers known as PPH, were dumped into West Virginia’s Elk River causing the drinking water to be unusable for days. The spill drove action by many state and federal lawmakers who hope to pass bills that would fill loopholes left by the current SDWA and Toxic Substances Control Act.