Washington Insider--Friday

Growing Concern About Algae Blooms

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

House Rail Safety Extension Won't Move With Highway Bill

Leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced legislation to give railroads until the end of 2018 to implement Positive Train Control (PTC) technology after several rail companies including Union Pacific Corp. and BNSF Railway Co. warned they may have to shut down services if the current Dec. 31, 2015, deadline is enforced.

The lawmakers will move the legislation as a stand-alone bill rather than include it in a surface transportation authorization.

The House bill, similar to a Senate-passed measure, was introduced Sept. 30 by Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., ranking member Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham, R-Calif., and Railroads Subcommittee ranking member Michael Capuano, D-Mass.

Under the legislation, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) could extend the 2018 PTC deadline up to 12 months on a case-by-case basis for railroads that face technical, operational or funding challenges after the three-year period. If some railroads continue to face challenges, the FRA could then provide a second extension for an additional 12 months.

Extensions could also be granted if a rail carrier has limited access to radio spectrum, which has been a problem for commuter railroads.

Rail carriers would be required to provide the FRA with a detailed schedule for PTC implementation and show they are meeting outlined goals, according to the legislation.

The bill was backed by industry groups, like the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the American Chemistry Council.


Some House Lawmakers Urge Opening of U.S. Market to More Sugar Imports

The U.S. should open its market to more sugar imports through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which trade ministers are aiming to complete this week, some House lawmakers said.

A letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman from more than 40 House members said consumers and food companies face high domestic sugar prices and tight supplies because demand exceeds production and imports are limited under U.S. tariff-rate quotas. The lawmakers pointed to USDA forecasts that the U.S. need for imported sugar will increase 1 million metric tons over the next decade.

"Furthermore, opening the U.S. sugar market for our TPP negotiating partners also encourages reciprocal market access for a wide range of exporters of U.S. goods and services, including export-oriented, globally competitive food companies, farmers, and ranchers, and advances the goal of a comprehensive trade agreement," the letter said. Australia and Canada have said a more liberalized U.S. sugar market is essential to finalizing the TPP. Trade ministers are meeting in Atlanta Sept. 30 to Oct. 1.

The Canadian Sugar Institute said its industry faces highly restrictive tariff rate quotas into the U.S., Japan and other markets on refined sugar and products containing the sweetener. It said Canada has minimal or zero tariffs.


Washington Insider: Growing Concern About Algae Blooms

The urban press has become very interested in EPA's unpopularity and the fight against its regulations while closely following new environmental threats like the algae bloom that shut down Toledo's drinking water system in 2014.

That bloom of poisonous blue-green algae -- called microcystis -- in Lake Erie peaked over the municipal water intake for Toledo, forcing the city to shut down drinking water supplies to 400,000 residents for four days in August.

This year, attention is turning to the Ohio River, which the New York Times says is "the nation's most polluted major waterway." A Times report this week identified a large outbreak of blue-green algae that is occurring along nearly two-thirds of the 981-mile river and is "curbing boating, putting water utilities on alert and driving the river's few hardy swimmers back to shore."

Toxic algae blooms on the Ohio are not new, a 2008 bloom covered 40 miles of the river. The latest bloom stretches 636 miles from Wheeling, W.Va., to Cannelton, Ind. Traces of algae have appeared as far west as Illinois.

While Ohio's 2015 pollution problems are producing fewer health threats than 2014, the Times said the issue is "not to be taken lightly." The toxin, microcystin, causes diarrhea, vomiting and liver damage, and it has been known to kill animals unlucky enough to drink water tainted with it.

States and the federal government are considering policies that could help control algae blooms. This past summer the president signed a new law that directs EPA to develop and submit a plan to Congress to evaluate algae risk to human health and to recommend treatment options to mitigate public health effects. EPA has issued two health advisories for algae toxins under its new authority.

It is unlikely EPA will rush to publish any new, tougher rules on agricultural fertilizer use during the 2016 election year. At the same time, if threats to urban drinking water intensify, as seems to be happening throughout much of the Ohio River, agriculture may well find itself squarely in the cross hairs of emergency anti-pollution efforts.

In the short time its new directive has been in place, EPA has not said much about how it will approach the algae problem. However, farming practices and fertilizer runoff have been linked to algae growth. Algae-control efforts clearly have the potential to affect farming practices in large areas of the Eastern Corn Belt. Such efforts should be watched carefully if they emerge, Washington Insider believes.

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