Environmental Protection Agency Under Fire From All Sides

Expect EPA to be radically downsized and stripped of much of its authority should a Republican become the next president. Democrats haven't stepped up to their defense as one might expect after the mishandling of the Flint water crisis.
March 21, 2016, 11am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"Under fierce attack from the political right, and with even some Democrats questioning its competence, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is facing a tumultuous election year — with rising regulatory responsibilities, falling budgets and its very existence at stake," writes Coral Davenport, climate and energy reporter for The New York Times.

The agency’s responsibilities have never been greater, and its resources have never been so strained.

The agency's mishandling of the crisis caused by the lead poisoning of drinking water in Flint, Mich. is taking a serious toll on the nation's chief regulatory agency for protecting the environment and public health. Criticized vehemently at Thursday's hearing by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who called on EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to resign when it was shown her agency had knowledge of improper treatment of caustic Flint River water by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) but did not act appropriately in a timely manner.

But criticism was bipartisan. At Tuesday's hearing, Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, asked former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, "Why, in July or August, didn’t you just stand up and scream, stop this?" said Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California. "To me, this is negligence bordering on deliberate indifference."

Just as excoriating (though aimed at the agency, not McCarthy or Hedman), was criticism from Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, widely credited for being the first to document the hazardous levels of lead in drinking water, expressed during Thursday's PBS NewsHour.

As McCarthy made clear at the hearing and in a Washington Post op-ed, the tragic Flint crisis that has lead-poisoned children was caused by MDEQ and the state-administered emergency management system. However, EPA had to assume full responsibility for a multi-state environmental catastrophe last August—a massive, toxic spill of wastewater containing heavy metals that occurred while EPA was conducting an investigation of the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, in southwest Colorado.

The spill turned the Animas River yellow. The Animas flows into the San Juan River through New Mexico and Utah where it meets the Colorado River at Lake Powell, at the border with Arizona. [See map of four states affected by spill.] The Navajo Nation was also impacted.

But here's the dilemma facing EPA: Just as the agency's workload has increased dramatically due to "President Obama’s effort to combat global warming," the two leading Republican candidates, billionaire businessman Donald J. Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, "have each vowed to eviscerate the agency," writes Davenport. "No matter who emerges as the Republican nominee, the party’s official policy will almost certainly take aim at the size, scope and structure of the E.P.A."

Conservative policy makers are considering proposals that would effectively strip the agency of its authority to set, put in place and enforce pollution standards. The agency would continue to exist, at least in name, but it could end up functioning only as a small scientific research agency, possibly swallowed into another department.

Democratic candidates are not exactly rushing to the agency’s defense. Mrs. Clinton said that as president she would open an investigation into its handling of the Flint water crisis. Mr. Sanders said that he would “fire anybody who knew about what was happening and did not act appropriately.”

Davenport delves into EPA's new authority to combat climate change under the Clean Air Act, enormously expanding the scope of its work, yet "(t)he agency’s spending under Mr. Obama has been cut between 10 and 20 percent below the budgets of the previous three administrations, when adjusted for inflation."

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Published on Friday, March 18, 2016 in The New York Times
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