Industry Pot Calls Enviro Kettle Black
Environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are notorious targets for media label makers that live to pigeonhole with prose. When discussing enviro groups, conservative media and industry lobbyists delight in tossing around terms like “radical,” “activist” and “left-wing.” Lately though, and particularly after U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent settlement with two powerful wildlife conservation groups--which was itself spurred by a lawsuit and aimed, in part, at reducing future ones--the term most often Sharpie'd on paper and taped high school-style to environmentalists' backsides is “litigious.”
But if the USFWS is the enviros’ legal whipping boy, then the Environmental Protection Agency is industry’s. A report released this week from the Government Accountability Office — a non-partisan, investigate arm of Congress — says that, in fact, it's trade associations and private companies — not environmentalists — that most often sue the EPA. Industry group suits comprise nearly half (48 percent) of the agency’s caseload. Meanwhile, local environmental citizens' group and national environmental group lawsuits, combined, account for 30 percent of EPA's legal labors; the rest were filed by states, municipalities, individuals, universities, unions and tribes.
What's more, only 1 percent of the 2,500 cases filed against the EPA between fiscal years 1995 and 2010 were brought under the Endangered Species Act. Most cases (59 percent) were filed under the Clean Air Act. Twenty percent were filed under the Clean Water Act, and 6 percent under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, a statute that gives the EPA authority to control the production, movement, treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous waste.
The GAO completed the report at the request of David Vitter, R-LA, and James M. Inhofe, R-OK, two in a seething heap of Republican legislators who have spent the last year scheming up ways to dismantle the agency because of “what they see as an activist agenda that is costing jobs and hurting corporate profits,” writes newsdaily.com reporter Malathi Nayak.
Not surprisingly, Vitter and Inhofe have ignored the frequency of industry lawsuits against the EPA and focused, instead, on how much "litigious" environmental groups are costing the taxpayer. The senators have latched on to GAO findings that say the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division—which handles EPA cases—spends an average of $3.3 million a year defending itself against lawsuits (about 3 percent of the division's budget).Vitter and Inhofe are also concerned about how much the EPA pays out in "legal returns," which, according to the report, includes attorneys fees and court costs to plaintiffs who win against the agency.
Interestingly, the GAO found that, while industry sued the EPA more often in the last 16 years, environmental groups received more payouts. According to the Washington Times, Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm, received "more than $4.6 million in attorney fees during the period GAO examined--32 percent of the total. The Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council accounted for another 9 percent."
The EPA makes these payouts under the 1980 Equal Access to Justice Act, which was passed to prevent legal expenses from deterring groups who want to challenge unreasonable government actions. The fees are also designed to bridge the resource gap between individuals, non-profit groups and the government.
These fees are paid only to successful litigants, and, as Vitter and Inhofe excitably point out, environmental groups, as the most successful litigants, received the majority of payments.
You can't help but wonder, then, if the senators aren't suffering sore-loser syndrome; or whether the bluster and bombast they fire at environmental groups and the EPA would subside if the industry lobby simply had a stronger case…say…public health before corporate profit.
Marian Lyman Kirst is an intern for High Country News