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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

EPA Woeful on Water and Warming

Air Date: Week of July 11, 2008

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The Environmental Protection Agency says it needs more time to decide on its global warming policy – after suffering two embarrassing disclosures about its shortcomings on this issue and water pollution. Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Jeff Young sorts them out and explains how each instance also relates to important Supreme court decisions with major environmental implications.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now says it needs more time before it can decide whether to regulate greenhouse gases, this despite a Supreme Court ruling requiring that EPA decision. EPA’s new schedule effectively means there will be no new climate change regulations until there’s a new president. The EPA’s announcement capped an ugly week for the agency. Back to back embarrassing revelations shed light on the EPA’s handling - or mishandling - of both global warming and water pollution. Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young is here to explain.

YOUNG: Hi Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Hi Jeff. So let’s begin with global warming. I guess a high level official at the EPA quit and now he’s kind of spilling the beans?

YOUNG: Mmhmm. Jason Burnett is his name. He was Associate Deputy Administrator in EPA that’s pretty high on the food chain there. Now he’s written a letter responding to some questions from the Senate’s Environment Committee and he gives a blow-by-blow account of the White House refusing to accept EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases might endanger public welfare. And he also spells out how Vice President Cheney’s office forced changes in some Congressional testimony that linked global warming to public health threats.

GELLERMAN: I remember that incident. The director of the Center for Disease Control was supposed to tell Congress about global warming and public health and then someone told her to change her testimony.

YOUNG: That’s right. The statement originally had examples of climate change increasing the likelihood of insect-born disease, worse air pollution, wildfires. Now there’s ample scientific support for those statements but for some reason they got cut. That infuriated Senator Barbara Boxer, she’s the California Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Environment Committee.

BOXER: This administration wants to downplay the threat global warming poses. And therefore it’s almost like they galvanize themselves into action when anyone in their own shop says, “Wait a minute, this is a problem.”

YOUNG: And Burnett’s letter says it was the Vice President’s office making those changes.

GELLERMAN: So why would Vice-President Cheney or someone on his staff be so concerned about that?

YOUNG: Well remember this all happened while EPA was weighing how it was going to respond to the Supreme Court’s big global warming decision from last year. And recall the court told EPA, “You’ve got to make a decision on regulating greenhouse gases.” Well, the first step in that process is to decide whether greenhouse gases might harm public health. And Burnett’s letter gives a fascinating sort of play by play on how the White House just refused to accept the EPA’s finding on this back in December. When Burnett emailed the finding to the White House, someone at the White House told him to say it was a mistake, that he had sent it in error. And he refused to do that.

GELLERMAN: And then what?

YOUNG: Well apparently the White House just didn’t open his email.

GELLERMAN: So they didn’t get it. So Jeff how much of this is just politics?

YOUNG: Well, you know clearly the Democrats in Congress hope to score some more hits on the Bush Administration with this and anything that implicates Cheney’s office is going to help them on that. It also turns out the person releasing this information, Jason Burnett, is a major campaign donor to Democrats.

GELLERMAN: Okay now as if that weren’t bad enough for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agency’s also under pressure for its enforcement of the Clean Water Act, or rather its lack of enforcement. Jeff, what’s that story about?

YOUNG: Oh now this comes from an internal memo by the EPA’s top enforcement official and it says that the EPA chose not to enforce the Clean Water Act in about 300 cases that dealt with small streams and wetlands. A California Democrat Henry Waxman chairs the House Oversight Committee. He caught wind of this memo and made it public.

WAXMAN: The impact of choosing not to enforce the Clean Water Act and the protections that it’s supposed to give to our waterways is totally out of line with Congressional intent. In fact, I think it’s a de facto repeal of this important law.

GELLERMAN: Ooh, strong words, repeal the Clean Water Act. What’s the EPA’s explanation Jeff?

YOUNG: Well, curiously, this is another instance where EPA’s having trouble dealing with a Supreme Court decision. In this case, a 2006 ruling in a Clean Water Act case that was supposedly going to clear up this lingering question about whether the act would apply to these small seasonal streams and wetlands that do not have an obvious connection to larger waterways. But the decision was kind of a mess, the Court split, and pretty much just said, “Okay regulators, you’re going to have to take a case by case approach.” So now each time somebody say, dumps waste into one of these intermittent streams or a developer bulldozes a small wetland, EPA faces a major legal decision every time. And this memo shows us that in hundreds of cases EPA has just decided its too much trouble to enforce the law.

GELLERMAN: So what happens now?

YOUNG: Well Congressman Waxman wants an explanation from EPA and there’s also a bill pending in Congress that could clear this up. It’s called the Clean Water Restoration Act but it has a lot of opposition and it’s been bottled up in committee for months.

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent, Jeff Young. Jeff, thanks a lot.

YOUNG: You’re welcome Bruce.

 

Links

Former EPA official Jason Burnett’s letter on White House and EPA global warming decision-making.

Rep. Henry Waxman’s letter to EPA regarding Clean Water Act enforcement, and the EPA memo that triggered it:

Related LOE coverage on EPA’s response to the Supreme Court’s global warming decision…

…and the high court’s mixed ruling on Clean Water:

 

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