After nearly a month off, U.S. elected officials returned to Washington, D.C. this week. And just as they so often do after returning from vacation, one of their first legislative actions was to dismantle portions of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a legislative packet that will greatly reduce the EPA’s ability to monitor environmental and health violations, leaving that responsibility to the states, many of which are constrained in their ability by tight budgets.
The package, known as the Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act, is a compilation of three separate bills, each attacking a different area of the EPA.
One of the biggest changes stemming from the legislation is a requirement that EPA update its rules for solid waste disposal every three years, and the agency will no longer be able to impose any regulations on solid waste disposal that interfere or attempt to supersede state laws.
Other parts of the legislative package compel the EPA to consult with states before imposing rules on the cleanup of Superfund sites, in addition to language that requires the President to consult with state leadership before enforcing environmental laws.
The three separate pieces of legislation included in the packet were proposed by Republican representatives Cory Gardner of Colorado and Bob Latta and Bill Johnson of Ohio. Altogether, the three Republicans have received more than $1,190,000 from the dirty energy industry.
The House passed the bill by a vote of 225–188, largely down party lines. Only five Democrats supported the legislation while four Republicans opposed.
The likelihood of the legislation making it past the Democratically controlled Senate are slim, and President Obama has already vowed to veto should it cross his desk. But the ultimate goal of this packet has nothing to do with creating actual laws.
This is an election year in which every single member of the U.S. House of Representatives is up for re-election.
Considering that only 13% of the American public approves of the job that Congress is doing, it’s going to be a rough year, and candidates will need a lot of money to overcome those poll numbers. This bill is an attempt to test which (and whether) elected officials are ready and willing to serve corporate polluter interests.
On the off chance that this legislation is signed into law, it would have a devastating effect on health and environmental protections. There is a reason that these Republican officials want to strip power away from the federal government and hand it over to the states. They recognize that the states have a very poor record when it comes to enforcement of environmental laws.
According to studies, state governments are significantly less likely than the federal government to perform inspections, levy fines when a company breaks the law, or dedicate adequate resources to watchdog agencies to keep polluting industries in check.
Many states and regulated entities advocate a more business-friendly, conciliatory enforcement strategy, one that does not emphasize enforcement actions and penalties as the keys to securing compliance. In their stated view, businesses are likely to comply without resort to sanctions because of adherence to social and political norms, market forces and other factors.
Thus, many states have reduced funding for inspection, enforcement cases and similar activities, and shifted resources toward compliance assistance programs. Some have created “customer service centers” for regulated entities. Many states (and even some EPA regional offices) do not follow EPA guidance for responding to violations with “timely and appropriate” enforcement actions. Many impose only limited penalties on violators, penalties that typically are far lower than those assessed by EPA in similar circumstances.
As pointed out above, states are far more likely to be in the pocket of big business, making adequate enforcement of existing laws almost impossible.
While the Republican Party has always been in favor of stripping federal power and giving it to the states, PolicyMic points out several instances where federal law is absolutely necessary:
While specially targeted laws would greatly benefit some states, other states would suffer from insufficient rules; no authority would supervise the states to make sure the laws were strict enough in each. Furthermore, many environmental issues travel across state borders. For example, mercury emissions pass over many states. Pollution from a factory in Philadelphia travels easily, infecting nearby states. Additionally, waterways do not end at state lines. Rivers, lakes, and streams flow from state to state, allowing industry-polluted water from the Rio Grande to infect not only Colorado, but also New Mexico and Texas. If one state falters on strong laws, all other states will suffer.
The EPA will always be an easy target for members of Congress willing to put the best interests of polluters above their constituents in order to stuff their campaign coffers.
But without the ability to enforce environmental laws, millions of Americans will continue to face the dangers of pollution disasters like the ongoing West Virginia chemical spill.
How many more toxic wastelands will Americans tolerate before this cycle of polluter payoffs is broken?