Browner Complains about Bush Environmental Policies; Top EPA Official Resigns
Last week was not a good one for EPA Administrator Christie Whitman or the Bush administration''s environmental policies.
In a editorial in the March 1 edition of the New York Times, former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Carol M. Browner took the Bush administration to task for its decision not to seek reauthorization of the taxes levied on oil and chemical companies that are used to subsidize cleanup activities under Superfund.
In other EPA news, Eric Schaeffer, the director of EPA''s Office of Regulatory Enforcement for the past five years, worked his last day at the agency on Feb. 27. And he did not go quietly.
In a three-page letter to Whitman that managed to find its way to the media and environmental groups, Schaeffer wrote of his frustration with what he perceived as the Bush administration''s interference with EPA''s efforts to enforce clean air regulations.
Schaeffer was a key player in the filing of lawsuits against several major energy companies. EPA and the Department of Justice charged that the utilities made major renovations to their facilities without installing needed anti-pollution equipment. The energy companies countered those claims, saying they made only routine repairs.
Power plants owned by the nine energy companies involved in the lawsuits emit 5 million tons a year of sulfur dioxide and 2 million tons a year of nitrogen oxide, according to Schaeffer. "As the scale of pollution from these coal-fired smokestacks is immense, so is the danger to public health," Schaeffer said in the letter. The lawsuits could have cut the two pollutants by a combined 4.8 million tons a year, he added.
Florida''s Tampa Electric and New Jersey''s Public Service Electric & Gas settled the lawsuits against them, but other utilities, which had not been sued but were negotiating with the government in an effort to head off lawsuits, have refused to move ahead with the negotiations. They "walked away from the table," wrote Schaeffer, believing that the White House will ease some of the provisions in the Clean Air Act. His criticism may have merit: Since the Bush administration took office, no further lawsuits against utility companies have been filed.
"I cannot leave without sharing my frustration about the fate of our enforcement actions," wrote Schaeffer, adding that he wished Whitman well in her efforts to "persuade the administration to put our enforcement actions back on course."
He added the agency is about to "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We are in the ninth month of a ''90-day review'' to examine [the Clean Air Act] and fighting a White House that seems determined to weaken the rules we are trying to enforce."
The Bush administration recently announced its "Clear Skies" and "Global Climate Change" initiatives, voluntary government/industry partnership programs that the administration claims will cut power plant emissions of the three worst air pollutants - nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury - by 70 percent and will reduce greenhouse gas intensity by 18 percent over the next 10 years. Environmental groups see the programs as an end run around environmental laws, but they have met with support from energy companies. (See related articles "Bush: Economic Growth Key to Curbing Global Warming" and "Whitman Launches Climate Leaders Program".)
An EPA spokesperson said that while Whitman has read Schaeffer''s letter, she has no comment on its contents. He added that the agency continues to pursue settlement discussions with the utility companies.
While Whitman is remaining silent on Schaeffer''s resignation, that''s not the case with environmental groups. "This is another clear signal that George W. Bush is the most anti-environmental president this country has ever endured," said Friends of the Earth President Dr. Brent Blackwelder. "When a respected high level official from a previous Bush administration abandons ship, you know our air and water are in serious trouble."
Schaeffer wasn''t the only former EPA official speaking out about Bush administration environmental policies.
In an editorial piece published March 1 in the New York Times, Carol Browner, who was Schaeffer''s boss at EPA for most of the 12 years he worked there, worried that the trust fund used to finance Superfund cleanups would soon run out of money.
After the Love Canal incident, Congress enacted Superfund legislation, which forced polluters to pay for cleanup, even years after the property was sold. The 1980 Superfund law imposed a tax on the oil and chemical industries, arguably the two industries that contributed the most to pollution at Superfund sites. That tax was used to finance a trust fund to pay for cleanups. In 1993, 1994 and 1995, these taxes generated more than $2 billion a year.
"As a nation we said we would clean up toxic sites - and the polluters, not the American people, would pay," wrote Browner. "For more than 20 years, the ''polluter pays'' principle has been a cornerstone of environmental policy."
She notes that not only has the "polluter pays" principle "made possible the cleanup of hundreds of the worst toxic waste dumps across the country, it also caused private industry to better manage its pollution and waste."
Under Superfund, cleanup of contaminated sites was financed three ways: the companies responsible would pay for cleanup; EPA would pay for cleanup using money from the Superfund trust fund and try to recoup the money from the responsible parties; or, in cases where no responsible party could be found, EPA paid for cleanup out of the trust fund.
"The very existence of the fund, in addition to financing cleanups, has given the EPA crucial leverage in getting reluctant parties to move forward with cleanups on their own. A healthy trust fund enables the EPA to say to polluters: clean up your site or we will use trust fund money to do it. And it will cost you more if we do it - you will have to pay for the cleanup plus additional penalties," Browner wrote in the Times editorial.
According to Browner, the administration''s decision not to seek reauthorization of the taxes means that the Superfund trust fund will be out of money by 2004.
She admits that in its early years, the Superfund process was "inefficient and slow," abating only 155 sites in the first 12 years. Aggressive Superfund reforms helped reduce litigation delays over how cleanups would be conducted and introduced a more flexible process for reaching agreements with the polluters, says Browner. The reforms nearly quadrupled the number of sites that were completed in an eight-year time period during the Clinton administration.
"Weakening the Superfund program, as the administration''s plan would do, would seriously compromise the health of our cities and neighborhoods," writes Browner. "There is no reason why the ''polluter pays'' principle that has worked so well should be abandoned and more of the financial burden shifted onto average taxpayers."
Calls for comment made to the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemistry Council (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers Association) were not returned.
by Sandy Smith ([email protected])