CPR Archive for Catherine O'Neill

Monetization, Myopia, and MATS

by Catherine O'Neill | March 26, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday heard oral argument in the consolidated cases challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule regulating mercury and other toxic emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants.  These utilities remain by far the largest domestic source of mercury emissions, contributing more than half of the mercury releases nationwide.   Mercury emissions are at the root of widespread methylmercury contamination in the nation’s fish.  Fish consumption is the primary way by which humans are exposed to what is, after all, an “extremely poisonous neurotoxin,” as the attorney for those industries that joined EPA as respondent reminded the justices. (Transcript at 84). The exchange captured by the transcript may not permit a confident prediction as to how the Court is likely to rule (an assessment shared by Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog ).  But it provides a glimpse of precisely how monetized costs and benefits can hijack deliberation.  Once dollar values are available, these numbers tend to dominate a discussion of what is at stake in regulation.  For mercury, the costs are readily quantified, whereas many facets of the benefits resist monetization.  So the case for regulation will not only get short shrift – it may be profoundly misunderstood.

This window into how the cost-benefit frame can recast debate is of no small moment, given that the question before the Court was whether the EPA must consider costs – and, specifically, weigh the costs against the benefits ...

Give Them an Inch … And They’ll Take Twenty Years

by Catherine O'Neill | July 14, 2014
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has gone to exceeding lengths to defer to states’ efforts to bring their water quality standards into the twenty-first century.  But the state of Washington has shown the perils of this deferential posture, if the goals of the Clean Water Act (CWA) are ever to be reached for our nation’s waters.  After months and years of delay, Governor Jay Inslee held a press conference this week to unveil his long-awaited plan for updating Washington’s water quality ...

Washington State’s Weakened Water Quality Standards Will Keep Fish Off the Table, Undermine Tribal Health

by Catherine O'Neill | March 04, 2014
In recent weeks, celebrations throughout the Pacific Northwest marked the 40th anniversary of the “Boldt decision” – the landmark decision in the tribal treaty rights case, U.S. v. Washington.  This decision upheld tribes’ right to take fish and prohibited the state of Washington from thwarting tribal harvest.  Judge Boldt’s 1974 decision was intended to close a chapter in our history during which tribal fishers were harassed, beaten, and imprisoned for the act of fishing.  In recognition of this anniversary, the ...

Justice Delayed

by Catherine O'Neill | February 22, 2013
Outgoing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson made environmental justice a priority at the agency. As her tenure draws to a close, EPA released its Plan EJ 2014: Progress Report in January, summarizing the agency’s considerable advances toward this important goal. The EPA deserves accolades for the seriousness with which it has treated the issue and for the progress it has made to address the unique and disproportionate burdens that environmental contamination visits on American Indian tribes and their ...

(Puget) Sound Science

by Catherine O'Neill | November 08, 2012
The current debate surrounding Washington State’s sediment cleanup and water quality standards provides another example of regulated industry calling for “sound science” in environmental regulation, yet working to undermine it.  Industry has worked to delay updates to water quality standards based on the most recent scientific studies, despite the fact that the current standards are based on decades-old data  and don’t adequately protect human health.  Most recently, industry has sought to weaken any forthcoming standards by misrepresenting scientific studies of ...

Fish for the Future: Our Health and Livelihoods Depend on It

by Catherine O'Neill | July 11, 2012
When environmental agencies set standards limiting toxic pollution in our waters, they theoretically aim to protect people who are exposed to these toxics by eating fish.  Currently, Washington state’s water quality standards protect only those who consume no more than one fish meal per month.  That means that those of us who eat more fish than this do so at our peril.     Washington’s Department of Ecology had announced some years back that it intended to update the fish ...

What Progress Looks Like: Washington State's Climate Change Preparedness Strategy

by Catherine O'Neill | April 20, 2012
Earlier this month Washington State’s Department of Ecology released its integrated climate response strategy, Preparing for a Changing Climate.  The strategy again demonstrates that the state is a leader when it comes to preparing for climate change impacts (see also NRDC’s recent report examining climate preparedness in all 50 states). What makes Washington a leader?  Well, the political leadership is willing to address climate change impacts, and the scientific community is active and engaged and generates the information and data ...

Three Chirps for Risk Reduction

by Catherine O'Neill | January 24, 2012
A new study underscores the wisdom of reducing the risks of mercury and other pollutants rather than relying on risk avoidance measures such as fish consumption advisories.  Mercury’s adverse effects are not limited to human health; its harms are felt throughout our ecosystems.  According to this most recent study, released today by the Biodiversity Research Institute, mercury harms a broader swath of wildlife than previously recognized, including many bird species that are not piscivorous.  This finding echoes those of studies ...

The Utility MACT: Finally Telling Coal Plants They Can't Spew All the Mercury They Want

by Catherine O'Neill | December 21, 2011
It was October 1990, George H.W. Bush was President, and the vote wasn’t close in either chamber: Congress overwhelmingly passed the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, including provisions requiring EPA to reduce mercury emissions from major sources such as power plants. Today the EPA at long last released its rule regulating mercury emissions from coal-fired utilities.  The fact that the largest remaining sources of mercury will finally be required to reduce their emissions is an important and historic development. And ...

Newest Research on Effects of Mercury Underscores Importance of Utility MACT

by Catherine O'Neill | October 28, 2011
As EPA’s long-awaited rule curbing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants heads to OMB for its review, new scientific studies suggest that the harms of mercury contamination may be more severe and more widespread than previously understood. According to the report Great Lakes Mercury Connections: The Extent and Effects of Mercury Pollution in the Great Lakes Region, released October 11, “the scope and intensity of the problem is greater than had been previously recognized.”  Despite these harms, utilities have been relentless in ...

New EPA Guidance Will Bring Some Needed Scrutiny of Institutional Controls at Toxic Sites, But Still Doesn't Require Checking That People are Actually Protected

by Catherine O'Neill | October 05, 2011
At a growing number of contaminated sites across the nation, “cleanup” means that toxic contaminants are left in place while environmental agencies look to institutional controls (ICs) to limit human contact with these contaminants. Agencies hope that ICs such as deed restrictions or advisory signs will inform people about the continued presence of contaminants at a site and help them steer clear, thus avoiding exposure. Yet agencies have done little to ascertain whether these hopes are well-founded, particularly over the long term. Against ...

EPA's Apparent Effort to Appease Environmentalists over the Boiler MACT Rule Not Very Appeasing

by Catherine O'Neill | June 24, 2011
The EPA has developed an inexplicable penchant for making decisions that please no one. So, it should come as no surprise that its announcement today regarding the ongoing, will-they-won’t-they Boiler MACT saga falls into this category too. The agency traded in the indefinite delay it gave itself last month to “reconsider” the final Boiler MACT standards it issued in February for a firm deadline:  The EPA now promises to complete the reconsidered final standard by the end of April of 2012. Environmentalists responded ...

In Coming Utility MACT, EPA Has Clean Air Act Authority to Make Big Strides in Protecting Americans from Mercury Pollution

by Catherine O'Neill | March 11, 2011
By Wednesday of next week, EPA is due to publish its long-anticipated rule controlling mercury emissions from coal-fired utilities.  This is how we ought to judge the rule: does it follow the mandate of the Clean Air Act (CAA)? For too long, utilities have managed by various means to fend off regulation required by the CAA. Assuming EPA’s rule at long last complies with Congress’s directives, Americans may look forward to a day when they can again eat fish without serving their families ...

EPA's New Boiler Rule Will Deliver Reduced -- But Still Huge -- Health Benefits

by Catherine O'Neill | February 24, 2011
This post was written by CPR Member Scholar Catherine O'Neill and Communications Specialist Ben Somberg. The announcement from EPA Wednesday creating final standards for pollution from industrial boilers is being described by the press as “scale[d] back,” and “half the cost of an earlier proposal.” Those things are true, but the new regulation is no small matter. It will have a significant and positive effect on the health of people across the country and beyond. Says the Sierra Club: "Though the ...

Environmental Regulation, Jobs, and Human Health: Industry Estimates on Boiler Rule Flunk Economics 101

by Catherine O'Neill | November 03, 2010
Economics professors at two major universities just issued their reviews of industry-funded assessments of the costs of EPA’s proposed boiler rule (via NRDC). The professors’ conclusions: “the methodology is fundamentally flawed;” “the resulting estimates of job losses are completely invalid;” “the results reported are useless;” “if I were grading this, I would give it an F.” These strongly-worded indictments should make us sit up and take note.  Professors Charles Kolstad and Jason Shogren were asked to review industry-funded estimates of the costs ...

Boiler MACT Rule Would Have Enormous Health Benefits from Air Pollutant Reductions -- And That's Not Even Accounting for the Reduced Mercury Emissions

by Catherine O'Neill | October 12, 2010
EPA’s proposal to curb emissions from the second largest source of mercury in the United States – industrial boilers and process heaters – has come under fire in recent weeks.  Those industries that would be subject to the “boiler rule” have objected to its costs, and some senators have embraced their claims (see also Lisa Jackson's response). The industry story, however, leaves out important facts. The industry story does not mention that, on balance, the estimated costs of the rule are ...

Egg Industry's Effort to Push Salmonella Problem as Consumers' Fault A Worrying Example of "Risk Avoidance" Policy Approaches to Health and Safety Regulation

by Catherine O'Neill | September 01, 2010
According to the egg industry, the thousands of people sickened by eggs contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis have only themselves to blame. As USA Today reported: "Consumers that were sickened reportedly all ate eggs that were not properly or thoroughly cooked. Eggs need to be cooked so that the whites and yolks are firm (not runny) which should kill any bacteria," says Mitch Head, spokesperson for the United Egg Producers. "Some people may not think of an egg as you would ground ...

EPA's New Guidance on Considering Environmental Justice in Rulemaking a Welcome First Step

by Catherine O'Neill | July 27, 2010
The EPA released a guidance document on Monday that promises to integrate environmental justice considerations into the fabric of its rulemaking efforts. Titled the Interim Guidance on Considering Environmental Justice During the Development of an Action, EPA’s Guidance sets forth concrete steps meant to flag those instances in which its rules or similar actions raise environmental justice concerns. Specifically, the Guidance directs agency staff involved in rulemaking to “meaningfully engage with and consider the impacts on” communities of color, low-income communities, indigenous ...

Also from Catherine O'Neill

Catherine A. O'Neill is Professor of Law at Seattle University School of Law, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Indian Law and Policy, and a former member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform.

Monetization, Myopia, and MATS

O'Neill | Mar 26, 2015 | Environmental Policy

Give Them an Inch … And They’ll Take Twenty Years

O'Neill | Jul 14, 2014 | Good Government

Justice Delayed

O'Neill | Feb 22, 2013 | Environmental Policy

(Puget) Sound Science

O'Neill | Nov 08, 2012 | Good Government

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