Sharp Rise in Enforcement Called for at EPA

Jan. 1, 2009
Greater enforcement is required if only as corrective measure, say Congressional environmental committee chairs.

by Patrick Crow

• Greater enforcement is required if only as corrective measure, say Congressional environmental committee chairs. AWWA expects more emphasis on climate change, other environmental issues from President Obam's “green dream team.”

US. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the Oversight & Government Reform and Transportation & Infrastructure committees, urged the Obama Administration to bolster Clean Water Act (CWA) enforcement – claiming it slipped in the Bush Administration.

Waxman said, “Our investigation reveals the clean water program has been decimated as hundreds of enforcement cases have been dropped, downgraded, delayed, or never brought in the first place. We need to work with the new administration to restore effectiveness and integrity to this vital program.”

The chairmen said their committees obtained EPA documents showing hundreds of CWA violations weren't pursued. “Dozens of existing enforcement cases have become informal responses, had civil penalties reduced, and experienced significant delays. Many violations are not even being detected because of the substantial reduction in investigations. Violations involving oil spills make up nearly half the Clean Water Act violations that have been detected but are not being addressed,.

Oberstar said, “This administration has only exacerbated a series of bad Supreme Court decisions by not enforcing the CWA and by placing development interests above those of the public.”

Sierra Club environmental quality program director Ed Hopkins said, “It is absolutely shocking that more than 35 years after passage of the Clean Water Act, the EPA finds itself unable to take action to protect our waters against oil spills, illegal waste discharges, and other harmful pollution.” He said the Supreme Court's 2006 Rapanos v. U.S. opinion narrowed the interpretation of the CWA, requiring water protection decisions to be made on a case by case basis.

Hopkins said a March 2008 EPA memo reported, from July 2006 to January 2008, confusion about what waters fall within the scope of the CWA “negatively affected approximately 500 enforcement cases” involving oil spills, pollution discharges, and wetlands destruction. The memo said EPA dropped 305 enforcement cases, most involving oil spills, and lowered the enforcement priority of 147 cases.

The Environmental Defense Fund said Congress also should strengthen the CWA to counter guidelines the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers issued in December in response to the Rapanos decision. The group said they lessened protections for many wetlands and other waterways.

The American Water Works Association said Obama's “green dream team” appointments suggest the new administration will be very serious about climate change and other environmental issues.

In December, President Barack Obama nominated Lisa Jackson, former NJ Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, to be EPA administrator. Citing climate change, air pollution, toxic chemicals, redevelopment and waste site cleanup, Jackson said agency challenges also include maintaining water quality to streams, lakes and rivers.

Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was nominated to be energy secretary. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist directed the lab's research into renewable technologies and energy efficiency.

Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) is the new Interior Secretary. In his acceptance statement, Salazar said his goals included “restoring our nation's rivers and working to resolve our water supply challenges.”

Nancy Sutley, deputy mayor of Los Angeles for energy and environment, will head the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Carol Browner, President Clinton's EPA chief for eight years, will be an assistant to the president for energy and climate change.

AWWA deputy executive director Tom Curtis, noting the federal chemical security program is up for review by the new Congress, pointed out that, during her term at the NJDEP, Jackson implemented a state chemical security program considered toughest in the nation.

About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for more than 10 years. Crow is now a Houston, TX-based freelance writer.

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