The EPA rides again

Agency swings into action, to industry's dismay

  • Dave Granlund

"It's time that we let the science speak for itself," said Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson in a recent statement. She was referring to her agency's finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and therefore must be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Not surprisingly, industry and political opponents quickly  pushed back.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has already filed a legal challenge. Beef, pound for pound, results in four times the greenhouse emissions of pork and 10 times that of poultry, and the group says that the cost of curbing those emissions would push many ranchers out of business. Any rules should be "voted on by Congress through a democratic process, not dictated by the EPA," said Tamara Theis, the group's chief environmental counsel. The cattlemen have a point -- Jackson herself told the Washington Post

that the Obama administration wants to see greenhouse legislation come from Congress first, before imposing EPA regulations. Given healthcare, the war on terrorism and other brouhahas, though, the agency might well end up beating Congress to the punch.

In other, less contentious areas, the EPA is making faster progress. For the first time ever, the agency is considering drinking-water standards for 13 pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics and sex hormones, and it's surveying water treatment plants for 200 chemical and microbial contaminants. Also for the first time, the EPA is developing a "Chemicals of Concern" list that may lead to strong regulations for nasty stuff like phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers and perfluorinated chemicals, including PFOA (used in nonstick cookware). The agency is also proposing new rules to curb mercury and other emissions from cement plants

Coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal for energy, is on EPA's regulatory hit list as well. In the West, millions of tons of the waste have piled up around power plants in Arizona, New Mexico and other sites, leaching arsenic, lead and sulfates into groundwater and rivers. Despite a 2000 EPA decision to regulate coal ash, no action was taken during the Bush years. Last year, after a 2008 coal-ash spill in Tennessee damaged homes and created lingering health problems, the agency set a December deadline for new rules. It promises they'll be complete within a few months.

The EPA has been active at the state level as well:

  • The Region 8 office recently objected to Wyoming's plan to issue groundwater discharge permits for coalbed methane operations in the Powder River Basin. The EPA says the state's plans to handle coalbed methane water don't appear to comply with the Clean Water Act or sufficiently protect agricultural water.
  • Region 8 also recently rejected Utah's request for certification indicating that it meets the Clean Air Act's limits for microscopic soot and dust pollution, which comes mostly from development and transportation sources. The agency says that the state's periodic dust storms cause its air to violate federal standards, and that more should be done to avoid them; the state says they're natural events that can't be controlled.
  • In New Mexico, the Region 9 office withdrew a water discharge permit for the Black Mesa Mine in late November, after Navajo, Hopi and environmental groups appealed. The groups said that Peabody Coal's operations contaminate groundwater with heavy metals and pollutants, and that local communities were shut out of the 2008 permit decision. The EPA plans to hold public hearings and reconsider the permit.

Green groups say they're pleased with the EPA's 2009 efforts. Industry counters that the new proposals go too far and that compliance will cost too much. "I don't think I've ever seen this many major proposals coming out this quickly," said Washington attorney Jeffrey R. Holmstead in the Washington Post. (Holmstead, the EPA assistant administrator for air quality under Bush, was named "clean air villain" of the month in March 2002 by the Clean Air Trust for his efforts to weaken air pollution laws.)

The agency seems unlikely to deviate from its new course, though. As Lisa Jackson said in an October NPR interview, "EPA is back on the job."

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