Big Government Policies That Have Failed the Environment

An overbearing federal government can be an affront to progress in many arenas, and environmental policy and execution are no exception. The Environmental Protection Agency, which was originally introduced by Nixon to protect the environment and human health, has become a politicized group that acts far beyond its limits and in a destructive, rather than constructive, way.

What ostensibly is a few isolated incidents with the EPA’s development and execution of the agency’s plans is, to the contrary, a pattern of disruptive, willfully reckless actions and power grabs by the agency.

The EPA, for example, greatly expanded its authority to regulate waters under the Clean Water Act by implementing new definitions for waters of the United States (referred to as the WOTUS rule). The EPA has twice lost its battle at the US Supreme Court to regulate more waters under federal jurisdiction, but nonetheless, the EPA proceeded to broaden its powers once again. Its WOTUS rule was especially vague: under its tributaries definition alone, waters under the CWA would include temporary streams that flow after precipitation and other depressions in the land that sometimes have water in them. In other words, the EPA could essentially regulate land and not actual waters, for which the CWA is intended. Moreover, the waters regulated by the EPA don’t necessarily have to be close to a traditional water, like a sea or interstate body of water. This rule disproportionately impacts private property owners, particularly farmers, who would be forced to secure permission to take any actions that might alter the “water.” This includes things like building homes or farming. Despite the EPA’s claims that WOTUS falls within the narrow boundaries set by the Supreme Court, it appears that claim isn’t true: Justice Scalia said in his Rapanos v. United States opinion that waters under federal jurisdiction should only include permanently flowing or standing bodies of water, stating, “[t]he phrase does not include channels through which water flows intermittently or ephemerally, or channels that periodically provide drainage for rainfall.” The EPA seized upon regulatory authority delegated without consulting the Congress, the policymaking body who best understands what lawmakers desire for the CWA and its application. Plans are now underway to repeal WOTUS.

Furthermore, the EPA’s gross negligence when it came to the Flint, Michigan, crisis is a continuation of its botched performance in Washington, D.C., where the agency’s rule to limit byproducts in the disinfectant process caused the Washington Aqueduct to change its chemical used in treatment and led to the leaching of lead into the water supply. Professor Marc Edwards said in his testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that “The EPA and other agencies caused a similar lead-in-the-water crisis in Washington, D.C. from 2001 to 2004 that actually was 20 to 30 times worse in terms of the health harm to children in Washington, D.C.,” adding that the EPA had covered up the crisis. Levels of lead in the city’s water were three times higher than in Flint, according to Edwards. The disaster in Flint was withheld from the public for months, with EPA official Susan Hedman defending the agency’s lack of urgency by implicating that the Department of Health and Human Services was responsible, along with county officials and the drinking water utility, for informing residents about the lead in the water and potential health risks, pointing her finger at “clear roles” as a defense for the indefensible.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, & Liability Act, sometimes shortened to CERCLA or dubbed the “Superfund,” is yet another federal program where the costs — in terms of risk and money — can, at times, far outweigh the benefits. Besides tripling the number of cleanup sites and going from a $1.6 billion project to an over $30 billion project, a study by Paul J. Leigh and Alan F. Hoskin found that “the risks to workers [at Superfund sites] frequently outweigh the risks to residents.” The EPA does not seem to weigh risks to workers in its decision-making process concerning Superfund sites and their cleanup. This is not to say that cleanups shouldn’t happen: Scenes as horrific as Love Canal deserve a full response and remediation. But not all Superfund sites are in residential areas (many are in industrial areas) and not all sites are equally hazardous, and the human lives we put at risk by cleaning up those sites should be a part of the process. An industrial site doesn't need to be cleaned to the degree a residential site does. Moreover, 95 percent of toxic wastes can usually be removed from a Superfund site in just months, but the agency spends years cleaning up that last increment, according to an EPA official cited by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. A second official, former EPA administrator William Reilly, said the EPA’s underlying assumptions for cleanup are absurd and are geared towards the “maximum exposed individual,” driving up costs to “stratospheric levels.” EPA Administrator Carol Browner, supervisor of the program during the Clinton administration, stated that CERCLA "frequently moves too slowly, cleans up too little, has an unfair liability scheme and costs too much."

The EPA also has created strict methane emissions rules, despite not receiving any direction from Congress to do so. Methane emissions have, in fact, been on the decline in the natural gas industry, with an inventory report by the EPA showing emissions from natural gas systems down 17 percent since 1990. Additionally, methane emissions from the natural gas sector comprise less than a percent of total emissions. The oil and gas industry, furthermore, has invested $90 billion in zero or low carbon emissions technologies since 2000. Nevertheless, the EPA felt the need to place a regulatory burden on an industry that is already moving towards less emissions and better technology. According to the Heritage Foundation, this rule left in place will mean higher energy prices for all Americans with very little, if any, positive environmental impact. The methane rule is in limbo at the moment after a federal court reversed the Trump administration EPA’s decision to suspend it.

From failing to listen to warnings before spilling millions of gallons of toxic waste into the Animas River to failing to comply with countless Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and acting in a particularly egregious manner, the EPA typifies a group whose primary interest is not the welfare of the American people but rather ideology. The EPA’s incompetence, overreach, lack of transparency, and complete disregard for this nation’s laws — and human life — have no place in American government. While it has succeeded in some areas, it has failed in many more.

In short, big government policies pushed by a vast executive bureaucracy don’t work. It’s time for a new, unified approach that routes around a federal government whose consistent lack of respect for checks and balances and the balance of power, both vertical and horizontal, has done much harm and not nearly enough good.

Liam Verses