Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The EPA, a gorilla in the closet

I’ll have more reporting that involves the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but here are a few key concepts:

The first head of the EPA, a Nixon appointee named William Ruckelshaus, said the newly-created agency was meant to be a “gorilla in the closet.”  As he explained in an oral history:

The belief was that the states had enough interest and infrastructure to enforce these laws. If they also had this “gorilla in the closet”–that is, the federal government, which could assume control if the state authorities proved too weak or inept to curb local polluters–the states would be far more effective. That’s the theory. Prior to EPA, there was no federal oversight. There was no “gorilla in the closet.” Absent that, it was very hard to get widespread compliance.

Adirondack communities know all too well about this gorilla and how, arguably, it can remain in the closet too long. For years, pollution from coal-fired power plants would drift up the Ohio Valley and cause acid rain here. Eventually, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to make sure that polluters reduced the amount of acid they released.

Further reading:

Permits = pollution

This is a forest-for-the-trees moment for me: an environmental permit is a permit to pollute.

We tend to throw around credentials, like permits and licenses, as if they are hall passes. For instance, “X facility is licensed to mine/timber/release wastewater.” This tends to subtly mask that a permit is permission to do something to the world that may harm it or the people, plants and animals that live in it.

But during an explanation of a database that tracks permits, Leif Fredrickson, a policy analyst with the University of Montana’s environmental data and governance initiative, boiled what a permit is down to its simplest form — a license to pollute.

To get a permit, polluters have to meet certain guidelines for reporting what they do and agree not to do certain things that create an illegal abundance of pollution, but a permit is still permission to release pollution into the environment or remove a resource from the natural world.

Further reading:

Presidential seesaw 

The EPA is a collection of regulatory powers under one roof. Often these powers are rooted in old laws, like the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act, both from the 1970s. These laws have helped clean up the nation’s air and water but are rarely updated. So, a lot of things happen not because the law says it should happen but because of the way a new president decides to interpret the old law — deciding, in other words, how big should be the gorilla in the closet. This was the big controversy in a landmark Supreme Court case, Massachusetts v. EPA, that forced a reluctant Bush Administration to begin regulating greenhouse gases. When the Obama Administration took office, it ramped up attempts to go after climate change-causing gases, which landed it and its plan in court.

The Trump Administration, notably and proudly, has attempted to rein in the EPA and generally scale back the regulatory actions the federal government is willing to take, including on climate change.

Many times, when Trump’s administration takes a step back from protecting the environment, it ends up in court. So far, the litigation has tied up some of the administration’s rollbacks. The Natural Resources Defense Council, for instance, says it has won 90 percent of the cases it has filed against the administration that have been decided by judges.

All of this is obviously because different presidents see different things differently and, each time they take an administrative action, someone sues. But why is each action or inaction so easily challenged? Arguably because Congress has not stepped in to make clear what the executive branch and the EPA should be doing.

Further reading: 

  • list of the various rollbacks, as compiled by the New York Times. One thing to be careful about: “rollbacks” can apply to new regulations that replace proposed regulations that had never taken effect.

Photo: The Atmospheric Sciences Research Center’s Whiteface Mountain Field Station has been monitoring acid rain for decades. Almanack archive

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Ry is a reporter who covered water-quality issues for the Explorer.

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One Response

  1. Todd Eastman says:

    Read up on the “Citizen Suit” provision in the Clean Water Act. The River, Bay, and Lake Keepers have been successfully utilizing this powerful tool for decades. The issue of standing is frequently under attack by polluting firms and their supporting politicians, but the Citizen Suits mostly endure.

    It is a blunt tool, but it often makes up for weak state enforcement and penalties…?