PEERMail: At EPA Oversight Means Overlook

2018 Highlights

Credit: Time Magazine

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River famously caught fire with flames leaping five stories high billowing plumes of industrial waste. The incident galvanized the environmental movement, leading to enactment of a series of major laws, such as the Clean Water Act in 1972.

These laws are supposed to serve as a national guarantee of environmental quality regardless of the state where you reside.  That national guarantee is now coming undone.

In administering these laws, EPA delegates authority to the states, But EPA does not give away its jurisdiction – it shares it.  By law, EPA is to exercise oversight to ensure that state programs and actions do not sink below national standards and rules.

That is changing.  Spawned by the now departed Scott Pruitt, the doctrine of “Cooperative Federalism” means that EPA will only intervene to counter a state action or permit as a last resort.

That doctrine lives on after Pruitt. An October 30, 2018 memo issued by Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler directs EPA regional offices to exhibit “general deference to the states” in order “to provide certainty in oversight.”

Unfortunately, that certainty is that EPA can be counted on to do nothing.

Here is a prime example of what this means. PolyMet Mining is planning a $1 billion NorthMet mine copper-nickel mine in northern Minnesota. The mine and processing plant would occupy 19,000 acres in the St. Louis River basin, creating a permanent pollution source in the river flowing into Lake Superior.  It would also destroy more than 900 acres of wetlands.

Until Trump’s election, the EPA Great Lakes Regional Office had submitted detailed comments to the state permitting agencies expressing concerns about potential violations of the Clean Water Act, excess mercury discharge, inadequate monitoring, and lack of numeric limits on mercury and other toxic chemicals in the discharge permits, among other problems.

During the past two years, however, EPA staff have been disallowed from providing comments in writing to their state counterparts. Instead, EPA staff were reduced to reading comments over the phone, according to call notes taken by state staff.  Nor would EPA release the finalized but still unsubmitted comments in response to a longstanding Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. So, PEER has sued it to compel production.

But think about how nuts this is.

Now, EPA specialists can only read – but not register – serious objections about potential pollution violations.  In this new form of kabuki oversight, EPA wants to ensure there is no paper trail evidencing the very real concerns of its professional staff.

This withdrawal from regulatory oversight is not limited to the Polymet mine in Minnesota. EPA employees from other regions report similar constraints to PEER As a result, EPA objections to state lapses in administering key environmental laws all across the country are being squelched.

Thus, at EPA, oversight has truly come to mean overlook.

We are working with employees to “out” as many of these suppressions as we can find.  Protecting community health and the environment is at stake in each case – and we could use your help.


Treasure Island – the Most Misnamed Place on the Planet.
Treasure Island is a man-made island built in the San Francisco Bay to host a world fair in 1939. The Navy took it over in World War II and after the war profoundly polluted it with hydrogen bomb debris and nuclear experiments. Today, Treasure Island remains deeply contaminated even as the Navy is slated to turn the island over for civilian use in 2021.  Nearly 2,000 people currently live there largely in subsidized housing facing unknown health risks.  Like the scandalously botched Navy radiation cleanup at nearby Hunters Point, the Navy cleanup at Treasure Island is a deadly façade. PEER has expanded our accountability campaign on both sites as well as other Navy eco-debacles in the Golden State. Stay tuned.


How Low Can You Go?
Arguably, nothing is more destructive of public lands than commercial livestock grazing, degrading millions of acres of the American West into moonscapes. Now, the Trump administration has lowered grazing fees to the lowest level allowed by law – $1.35 per animal unit month (the amount of forage a cow and a calf can consume in a month) down from $1.41.  This amount is several times lower than the grazing fees charged on state or private lands. It is also too low to support BLM’s anemic grazing program.  This means we will have to work harder to ensure that Western streams and rangelands can serve ecological uses beyond receptacles for cow manure.


Susan Bodine’s Very Bad Day
For the past year, PEER has been posting statistics showing that EPA anti-pollution enforcement has collapsed under Trump. This week, Susan Bodine, the head of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance had a committee full of critical Democrats to explain the nosedive in virtually every measure of investigative and prosecutorial effort. She had little success trying to explain away the obvious.  One big factor is that Pruitt and Wheeler have politicized enforcement, allowing corporations to cut deals with Trump appointees before investigations become troublesome. Another is the number of investigators is at a 20-year low. The Trump approach is to take the cops off the beat and then declare that they were not needed because no crime has been detected.


Ranger Danger
National park law enforcement rangers statistically have one of the most dangerous jobs in federal civilian service. These jobs are also growing more demanding and complex. So, it is a shock that the Park Service is planning to reduce training for law enforcement rangers. PEER has exposed this plan and hope to stop it on the Hill.