A FORMER EPA ENFORCER
Under the platitudes of “budget cuts,” we all lose valuable protections for our health. I know, because I recently retired after spending 27 years as a lawyer at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I've watched high-level policy discussions miss the realities of my work on-the-ground with industrial facilities and communities.
The current Administration's proposed budget seeks to cut EPA enforcement activities alone by about 25%. The House increased the cuts to approximately 27% while the Senate proposes to reduce some, but not all, of those cuts. But rather than focus on the numbers, what do enforcement cuts mean to your families? I worked on enforcement. For example, we examined secondary aluminum facilities that burn scrap aluminum metal and emit hazardous air pollutants like dioxins and furans. These pollutants are known to cause cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities in children, and more. They impact company employees and the nearby low income communities where most of these facilities reside. One aluminum facility I prosecuted, located near a shopping center and entertainment complex, stonewalled EPA efforts to require the facility to conduct tests to show whether their furnaces burning metal exceeded regulatory limits for pollutants. Other facilities knew how this company ignored the law and made it harder for law abiding businesses to retain good working relationships with their communities. Their message to me was “we want to follow the laws, but you need to enforce the laws against the ‘bad actors’ so that we all can have a level playing field.” Ultimately a judge agreed with EPA.
The EPA subsequently filed another action against the same facility to clean up the soil on the property which had been contaminated by uncontrolled substances including lead, that could be swallowed by children. Lead poisoning can cause birth defects, mental deficiencies, and irreversible neurological and physical effects. As we’ve seen in Flint, Michigan, lead poisoning has real consequences. Cases like these are hard work, and not necessarily "sexy." But they matter to those who may not have to live with the consequences from illegal hazardous pollutants.
Oliver Schmidt, Volkswagen executive in charge of VW's compliance with US emissions standards for vehicles.
He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the federal government and to violating the Clean Air Act, and was sentenced to 7 years in prison, plus a $400,000 fine.
It is incorrect to assume that all of EPA's actions are directed at filing law suits. A high tech company came to me and explained that the compliance regulations were not a problem—their main issue was the speed with which they received permits. In business, time is money. We were able to expedite the issuance of their permits, based on the plant’s needs for changes, while ensuring that their resulting emissions were less than what was required by law.
With more budget battles looming across many environmental programs, I see a bleak future for EPA. If you gut enforcement of environmental regulations, as the President and many in Congress urge, good companies will be penalized for trying to do the right thing, and bad companies will be given blank checks to ignore our laws and poison our most vulnerable citizens. We must fight to maintain an EPA that is able to achieve its statutory mission..."to protect human health and the environment."
So how do we fight to protect EPA from being dismantled? First, force the Administration’s political appointees to explain the specific goal of each budget cut, and how that cut should be implemented. The devil is in the details (which may shift as the debate progresses) and they need to explain where EPA is expected to reduce enforcement and which specific regulations should be eliminated while maintaining EPA’s mission “to protect human health and the environment.” Second, the press needs to assess the health impacts of specific cuts and report on their implications to the public. Debate cannot remain limited to talking heads speaking in slogans on cable TV. We need investigative reporting. Third, I ask President Trump: Do not trust the views of a few key donors and heavily biased appointees. And Mr. Pruitt: You have people in the Agency with years of expertise and the ability to seek comment from many different stakeholders. Use them; do not ignore them. The stakes are too high for the next generation to get this wrong.
About the author
Dan Reich retired in April 2017, after a career which included serving as a US Department of Justice Civil Division Trial Attorney and an Assistant Regional Counsel at EPA Region 9 in San Francisco. He is a member of the Environmental Protection Network and SaveEPA, organizations of primarily former EPA employees that are concerned about the future of EPA. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.