Punish and Reform the EPA

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience. It was also co-authored with Todd Myers.

EPA says it focuses on environmental protection. The Animas River disaster shows that it is more concerned with protecting itself.

The accidental spill of toxic wastewater into Colorado’s Animas River is an ironic case study: The very organization meant to protect Americans from environmental catastrophes was responsible for perpetrating it. How should the Environmental Protection Agency be held accountable?

Colorado, and the states downstream of the spill, should sue the EPA. But, instead of merely recovering the cost of environmental damage, the lawsuit should focus on taming the leviathan the EPA has become.

Created in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, the EPA, at its best, has been an important part of improving air and water quality. Clear standards, enforced in a straightforward way have been successful. The fact that the American environment is cleaner and safer than it has been in a century is partially due to EPA action.

In recent years, however, the EPA has moved away from those clear standards, preferring to exercise vague discretion in a way that is costly and often ineffective.

After the Gulf oil spill, the agency was vindictive in its treatment of BP. It banned the oil company, as well as 21 subsidiaries unconnected to the spill, from obtaining new federal contracts due to a “lack of business integrity.” The ban was lifted only after BP sued the EPA. In total, BP paid $54 billion in settlements, including $5.5 billion to the EPA for violating the Clean Water Act.

To be clear, it is not vindictive to hold BP – or anyone else – accountable for environmental damage. But, it is not responsible for the EPA to strain its authority to engage in a self-serving money grab.

The situation with the Animas provides more evidence that EPA’s desire to expand or protect its power can too often trump environmental stewardship.

For example, EPA Director Gina McCarthy told reporters, “The good news is [the Animas River] seems to be restoring itself.” Imagine the (justifiable) outrage from the EPA had BP made such a claim only a few days after the Gulf spill was capped when much of the damage had yet to be assessed.

And it’s not just British oil companies the EPA targets. The EPA threatened a Wyoming man with a $75,000-per-day fine for building a pond on his own property. Such behavior led a Washington Post editorial to observe, “The EPA is earning a reputation for abuse.”

The EPA often argues that money should be no object when protecting the environment. The same agency, however, has been circumspect about paying the significant costs for the damage it caused.

The wide gap between the cavalier attitude toward businesses and personal property rights and their own squeamishness to hold themselves accountable demonstrates that institutional – rather than environmental – protection is playing a decisive factor in EPA decision-making.

If EPA chooses to protect is own, rather than holding employees accountable, can we accuse Director McCarthy of a “lack of integrity”? To what standard will she be held?

The contrasting way the EPA dealt with BP and its own damage at the Animas River demonstrates that agency motives are not always entirely pure. They are quick to demand others pay and give them power, using the environment as a lever. But when their own funding and power is questioned, they minimize the environmental damage and cost. Director McCarthy even had the lack of awareness to tell the people of Colorado not to worry because the “EPA is here.”

The bottom line is that while the EPA has done much good, it has come to associate environmental protection with its own aggrandizement. Now is the time to make it clear that environmental protection, not a self-serving power grab, is what the public wants.