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One Year In, the Obama Administration’s ‘Path to Progress’ Is Benefiting the American People and Our Environment

From the moment they secured majorities in both chambers, congressional Republicans have made no secret of their intention to launch an all-out, guerilla warfare-style campaign against the federal government — and even the very notion of governance itself. Accordingly, they have pursued a strategy of salt-the-earth sabotage designed to spread like a communicable disease the dysfunction that has long characterized the legislative branch to the executive branch. Given the unrepentant nihilism, many political observers were quick to pen their epitaphs for the Obama Administration after the 2014 mid-term elections, opining that little progress would be made during the final two years in office, particularly where public safeguards and environmental protections were concerned.

But something funny has happened over the last year. To the dismay of congressional Republicans and their corporate benefactors, the Obama Administration has had one of the most productive years of any president in recent memory, at least on the regulatory front, securing critical new safeguards for people and the environment that will continue to deliver such benefits as cleaner air and safer food for decades to come.

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Ten Things I Hate About Jeb's Antiregulatory Regulatory Reform Plan

Consistent with his ongoing efforts to distinguish himself among the Republican presidential candidates as a serious “policy wonk,” Jeb Bush, “rolled out” his “regulatory reform” plan last week.  The sad truth, though, is that the plan contains little of what might be considered sober or intellectually rigorous.   Rather, it is simply a mishmash of warmed over ideas from candidate Mitt Romney’s 2012 regulatory reform plan and from the various antiregulatory bills that have been festering in Congress the last several years, all served on a wilted bed of misleading data, astounding leaps of logic, and outright falsehoods.

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More Fun Than Escaped Llamas: House GOP to Hold Yet Another Antiregulatory Hearing

In keeping with an apparent effort to hold an antiregulatory hearing on any and all days ending in “y,” Congressional Republicans have teed up yet another humdinger for Monday, March 2. That’s when the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Administrative law will take a closer look at three more antiregulatory bills that have been recycled from previous congresses, including the Responsibly and Professionally Invigorating Development Act of 2015 (RAPID Act), the Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act of 2015 (SRDSA), and the Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome Act of 2015 (SCRUB Act).  And by “take a closer look,” I mean “recite tired free market platitudes en route to their predetermined conclusion that the passage of these three bills is the only way to prevent regulation-induced economic disaster.”

Others and I have written about all three of the bills in the past, so there’s no need to rehash all of the gory details here.  But, in approaching the hearing, a few thoughts are worth keeping in mind on each of these absurd bills:

The SRDSA.  Last week, I blogged about the SRDSA—a bill that its supporters claim is necessary to prevent so-called “sue and settle” agreements that lead to environmental regulations—to highlight how a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report had thoroughly demolished the “sue and settle” myth.  In fact, every claim made by the lead House and Senate sponsors of the SRDSA in their joint press release announcing the bill was directly refuted by the GAO.  Hopefully, this GAO report will be discussed at great length on Monday.   There is, however, a real “sue and settle” problem that is quite distinct from the fallacious one that congressional Republicans are constantly complaining about.  This one involves industrial polluters urging conservative state governments to sue them for their environmental violations, as a means of forestalling citizen suits that seek to hold companies liable for the same environmental violations.  The state dutifully steps in, blocks the citizen suit, and then settles with the company with a slap on the wrist.  The most infamous example of this maneuver took place just before the Duke coal ash spill in North Carolina last year. Any guesses on whether the Republicans will bring that up on Monday?

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CPR President Rena Steinzor Reacts to Final Coal Ash Rule

Today, the EPA announced national standards governing coal waste from coal-fired power plants, also known as coal ash. The rule does not treat coal ash as a hazardous material, but as household garbage.

CPR President and University of Maryland law professor Rena Steinzor reacted to the classification:

It's bitterly disappointing that the electric utility industry, which earns profits hand over fist, has succeeded in bamboozling the White House to gut this rule.  Originally designed by EPA to prevent fatalities, injuries, and grave long-term damage to the public's health, the rule was caught in the cross hairs of naysaying economists on the President's staff, who invented the misguided and subversive notion that if coal ash dumps were cleaned up, coal ash could not be recycled.  In fact, a strong rule that makes it more expensive to dispose of coal ash could only result in more of it  being recycled, especially because EPA never proposed to place any restrictions on recycling.

Coal-fired power plants produce an astounding 100 million tons of coal ash annually.  For decades, utilities dumped this enormous quantity of waste into pits in the ground, where rain turned the ash into inky sludge.  Unwilling to face the growing risk posed by the dumps, the companies kept shoring up the fragile walls of such dumps with the functional equivalent of chewing gum and spit.  As smokestack scrubbers were installed to keep toxic metals like mercury and arsenic out of the air, these pollutants did not disappear, but instead fell down the stack into the ash, converting it into even more dangerous waste. Two recent spills--from a Duke Energy site in North Carolina and from a Tennessee Valley Authority site in Kingston, Tennessee--should have been the only wake-up call we needed to compel the companies to rebuild these sites before people are killed by spills and drinking water is ruined by leaks out of the bottom of the dumps.

Instead, the White House shut down a strong EPA rule and insisted on the pitifully weak alternative issued today, which treats coal ash as if it was household garbage and leaves it up to the tender mercies of state regulators to chase around after utility executives who have only to call their political bosses to shut down any further controls.

When--not if--the next spill happens, the White House will share the blame.  We can only pray that no one is caught in the path of a river of sludge.

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Obama’s Path to Progress: Will the White House Compel Rich Utilities to Clean Up Giant Coal Ash Pits?

We’ll soon learn the results of White House deliberations over EPA’s long-delayed coal ash rule, one of the Essential 13 regulatory initiatives we’ve called upon President Barack Obama to complete before he leaves office.  Under the terms of a consent decree, EPA is required to issue its new rule by Friday, December 19. As glad as we are to see this phase of the rule’s tortuous odyssey come to a close, we suspect that court, not a victory party, will be the public interest community’s next stop, despite a late-entry exposé aired by 60 Minutes last week. 

In the universe of self-inflicted environmental wounds over the last two decades, any “10 best” list must include the brilliant decision to make operators of coal-fired power plants scrub smokestacks to keep mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and lead particles out of the air but neglecting to prevent them from picking the bad stuff up off the grate, carting it a short distance, and dumping it into giant pits in the ground.  Utilities generate an astounding 100 million tons of such inky sludge annually.  But because the federal government has never issued minimum requirements for such dumps, and state laws are rarely adequate, these pits have been left to grow wider, deeper, and taller, contaminating drinking water and threatening catastrophic spills.  

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EPA Sends Coal Ash Rule to OIRA

After ringing its hands for nigh on four years, EPA has at last coughed up a final coal ash rule.  Of course, no one but the White House staff will know what it says until the White House releases it in absolutely final form.  Nevertheless, the staff will now engage in the charade of hosting multiple appearances by various interest groups that want to tell the President’s people about those concerns without really knowing what they should be talking about.

EPA is due in court on December 19 to explain to a judge what rule it has written.  We can only hope that it is not the pale alternative crafted by the White House and put out for comment.  That pitiful compromise would perpetuate the status quo, with the states left to continue to do a bad job at overseeing these huge pits in the ground that will inevitably burst, spilling toxic sludge across the landscape.

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CPR President Rena Steinzor Testifies at House Hearing on Federal vs. State Environmental Policy and Constitutional Considerations

Today, CPR President Rena Steinzor testifes at a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment and the Economy Hearing entitled, "Constitutional Considerations: States vs. Federal Environmental Implementation Policy."

According to her testimony:

As I understand the situation, the Subcommittee’s leadership called this hearing in part to explore the contradiction between the notion that legislation to reauthorize the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) should preempt any state authority to regulate chemical products with the notion that the federal government should depend on the states to regulate coal ash and has no role to play in protecting the public from such threats. 

These positions are a dichotomy if there ever was one. The contradictory ideas that the federal government must dominate the field in one area but that the state government should be exclusively in control in another seems irreconcilable as a matter of principle. 

Of course, as a practical matter, these irreconcilable positions have consistent pragmatic outcomes: they help big business. The chemical industry feels much more confident about its ability to browbeat the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) into quiescence under the weak provisions of the TSCA legislation under discussion, so long as proactive states like California are knocked out of the equation. The electric power industry is much happier submitting to state regulators, who, as the recent spill in North Carolina clearly illustrates, have done almost nothing to control the severe hazards of improper coal ash disposal than it would be dealing with EPA’s more stringent regulatory proposals. Or, in other words, states should prevail as long as they aren’t doing much to gore the ox of big business. Once they get started down the road to regulate more stringently, however, the federal government must step in to halt a “patchwork” of overly aggressive regulation. 

This debate has been going on, in one iteration or another, for decades. Congress has grappled with it, the Supreme Court has grappled with it, the states have participated in the debate, as has the Executive Branch, and out of all this intense debate have come two fundamental principles well-recognized by mainstream constitutional scholars: 

One. The wide range of federal programs dealing with health, safety, and the environment are grounded appropriately in the Commerce Clause. While the Supreme Court has imposed some limits on federal authority, they do not apply to the structure of the federal environmental law. 

Two. A coherent set of eminently reasonable principles defines the cooperative partnership that prevails in the health, safety, and environmental area, and I urge the subcommittee to return to these principles in allocating responsibility to federal and state governments. 

To read her testimony in full, click here.

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The “Best” Regulatory System Money Can Buy: Lessons from North Carolina’s “Regulatory Reform” Movement

For years, Duke Energy has enjoyed virtual free rein to contaminate North Carolina’s surface and ground waters with arsenic, lead, selenium, and all of the other toxic ingredients in its coal ash waste in clear violation of the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental laws.  And it seems that both North Carolina’s regulators and state legislators are determined to keep it that way.

Last year, the state’s environmental agency actively thwarted citizens’ efforts to sue Duke for violating the Clean Water Act by intervening in the lawsuit at the last minute and then settling with the company for just over $99,000—chump change for a company worth more than $50 billion—and no obligations to clean up their coal ash waste sites or prevent future pollution.  As detailed previously on CPRBlog, the head of the state’s environmental department—appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory, a former executive at Duke who had worked for the company for nearly three decades—promised that he would work as a “partner” to regulated industries in the state.  Federal prosecutors are now looking into whether North Carolina’s environmental regulators engaged in any criminal activity in their efforts to shield Duke.

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Enforcement of Environmental Laws a Victim of Obama’s Budget Proposal

EPA’s budget is in free-fall.  Members of Congress brag that they have slashed it 20 percent since 2010.  President Obama’s proposed budget for 2015, released on Tuesday, continues the downward trend.  The budget proposal would provide $7.9 billion for EPA, about $300 million, or 3.7 percent, less than the $8.2 billion enacted in fiscal year 2014.

To cope with these cuts, the agency plans to fundamentally change the way it enforces environmental laws.  A draft five-year plan released in November signals that the agency is retreating from traditional enforcement measures, such as inspections, in favor of self-monitoring by regulated industries.  Specifically, the agency aims to conduct 30 percent fewer inspections and file 40 percent fewer civil cases over the next five years as compared to the last five.

Even before releasing the draft plan, the agency had already begun cutting down on enforcement.  In February, the agency reported a decrease in the number of in-person inspections and investigations in 2013 compared to the previous year.  According to the EPA’s own report, enforcement actions in 2013 resulted in the reduction of 1.3 billion pounds of pollution, down from a high of more than 2 billion pounds in 2012.  EPA conducted 2,000 fewer inspections and evaluations and initiated about 2,400 civil cases last year, continuing a downward trend since fiscal 2009 when the agency opened about 3,700.

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North Carolina’s Coal Ash Spills: A Glimpse of the Future under OIRA’s Weak Option

Yesterday, we wrote about OIRA’s role in delaying and diluting the EPA’s long-awaited coal ash rule, in part by introducing and promoting a weak option that would rely on voluntary state implementation and citizen suits, instead of nationwide requirements and federal oversight, to protect the public from dangerous leaks and spills.

Anyone who thinks the states can be entrusted with regulating toxic coal ash need only take a passing glance at North Carolina’s track record—a virtual “how to” guide for regulatory dysfunction. Governor Pat McCrory himself worked at Duke Energy for 28 years, and Duke-connected sources donated over a million dollars to get him elected in 2012. Once in office, he appointed several former Duke employees to high-level posts, and the newly appointed head of the state’s environmental department saw himself as a “partner” to regulated industries rather than a cop on the beat. The department took no action even after Duke’s own test results showed that the ponds were polluting nearby groundwater.

Citizen suits fared no better. Even in the best circumstances, these lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming for organizations to bring, and unlike comprehensive regulations, they are sporadic in their coverage. But the situation in North Carolina was even worse: environmentalists filed three separate notices of intent to sue Duke in federal court over groundwater pollution, and each time the lawsuits were stymied by the state’s environmental department.

Federal law gives state regulators 60 days after such notices are filed to assert their own jurisdiction over the issue by bringing an enforcement action, which prevents the citizen suits from proceeding. North Carolina’s environmental department brought actions against all of Duke’s remaining waste sites, effectively blocking any additional coal ash suits against the company. The state negotiated a settlement with respect to two sites, under which Duke would pay just $99,111 (the company is worth $50 billion) and wouldn’t even be required to move or close the dumps.

The state has recently backed away from the embarrassing settlement in light of Duke’s high-profile spill. But with all this attention now focused on their improper relationship, both Duke and the North Carolina government have become the subjects of a federal criminal investigation that will examine years’ worth of their emails and memos.

This is the kind of regulatory protection we can expect to see more of if the EPA decides to issue a weak rule under Subtitle D.

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