Washington, DC — Democrats pushing pet projects are pressuring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to short-circuit scientific reviews and anti-pollution protections, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Politicians saying that they have “assurances” of favorable treatment undercut promises by the Obama administration that EPA and other environmental agencies would follow the rule of law rather than political dictates.
At issue is the controversial $1.4 billion Fall River/New Bedford rail line to Boston slated to bisect the largest freshwater wetland remaining in Massachusetts – the Hockomock Swamp, which is designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and a priority wetland by the EPA. In a March 27, 2009 interview, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) stated he has received “assurances” that EPA will not raise “obstacles” to the rail route that he favors:
“Referring to objections over building the rail through the Hockomock Swamp along a possible Stoughton route, Frank said he and other supporters made sure the new leadership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not include anyone with ‘a record of hostility’ to the project. ‘I think we are assured on that part,’ he said. ‘We're going to be environmentally responsible, but we don't want obstacles put in the way.’”
“We thought the era of litmus tests at EPA was supposed to be over,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, an attorney and biologist who was formerly a wetlands regional official at EPA. “How is this different from the political manipulation that the Bush administration exerted over EPA?”
PEER has contended that if EPA truly follows the rule of law it will find that the route through the Hockomock is illegal under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. PEER today wrote EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asking her to investigate Rep. Frank’s claims and seeking guarantees that EPA will strictly follow the law in reviewing any proposed permits. PEER is also asking EPA to turn over all communications that it has had with top officials from the Commonwealth about the rail project.
Apart from the myriad negative environmental impacts of the diesel rail project, the state’s official estimates of ridership for the Fall River/New Bedford rail line have fallen by nearly a fifth since 2002 while costs continue to swell. The low ridership figures cut heavily against the claimed environmental benefits for this particular route. Moreover, PEER points out that there are more eco-benign alternatives that the state is not pursuing.
“In essence, Congressman Frank is asking EPA to violate the law to curry favor with Massachusetts politicians,” added Bennett, arguing that while many of the environmental costs of this project are evident, the environmental benefits are unsupported by hard analysis. “This boondoggle has all the earmarks of abusive pork barrel spending that President Obama vowed to stop.”