This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 11, 2012 - WASHINGTON – In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency opened its doors with an aggressive new chief, later dubbed “Mr. Clean,” and an independent charter to promote clean air and water across the country.
The EPA was established by a Republican president, Richard Nixon. Its first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, was a Republican. And the agency was created in response to bipartisan concern about widespread pollution.
But in recent years, that one-time GOP war against pollution has gradually morphed into what critics describe as a Republican war against the EPA itself. U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., recently called EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson “the worst” leader in the agency’s history, and scores of Capitol Hill conservatives want to downgrade or even dissolve the EPA.
“I think she has a callous disregard for how [EPA] rules impact families and jobs and the economy,” charges Blunt, who contends that the agency’s regulations will cost utilities, farms and industries billions of dollars. “But it’s not just all about her. Some of it’s about that fact that she’s been asked to pursue really bad policies” by the White House.
Defenders of the EPA under Jackson say she is simply trying to implement laws approved by Congress and signed by presidents. “The EPA under Lisa Jackson has done its job of enforcing the laws Congress passed -- much to the dismay of many Republicans,” says Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “From my point of view, keep it up.”
But the GOP-controlled U.S. House – in particular, the Energy and Commerce Committee – has taken aim at EPA regulations. In the first year after Republicans gained a House majority in 2010, about 160 votes were held against various environmental protections, including more than 80 votes on amendments or bills targeting the EPA.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, who chairs the panel’s environment and the economy subcommittee, has targeted EPA regulations and its cost-benefit calculations.
“It’s not a debate about which side wants to pollute our constituents and which side does not. That’s ridiculous," Shimkus said in an interview Tuesday. "Our side asks: What’s the balance between people having jobs and economic growth and having clean air and water? Of course you can have both.”
Questions that Shimkus and other GOP lawmakers have fired at the EPA include: Are coal-fired power plants over-regulated? Are environmental rules stifling industries and slowing down the economy? Should manure be listed as hazardous waste? Is farm dust hazardous to health?
“Republicans have made an assault on all environmental issues,” charges the committee’s top Democrat and former chair, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. In a speech last spring, he said that “this is, without doubt, the most anti-environmental Congress in history.”
As for the EPA’s Jackson, who faced aggressive questioning at a series of House committee hearings, she warned in an op-ed last fall that the House GOP was engaging in “an assault in our environmental and health protections.”
Jackson wrote: “Using the economy as cover, and repeating unfounded claims that ‘regulations kill jobs,’ they have pushed through an unprecedented rollback of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and our nation's waste-disposal laws, all of which have successfully protected our families for decades.”
At a conference a few years ago, Ruckelshaus said the agency had been banged up by the constant back and forth in political debates about the economy and environmental polity over the last two decades.
“The EPA suffers from battered agency syndrome,” he said. “Why is EPA now the agency everyone loves to hate?”
Support, criticism for EPA wax and wane
In a sense, the modern environmental movement began with “Silent Spring,” a landmark 1962 book by Rachel Carson about pesticide contamination in streams. But the movement was not codified until Nixon and Congress established the EPA.
Within days after the agency’s launch in December 1970, Ruckelshaus announced that the agency had “no obligation to promote commerce or agriculture” – positioning the EPA as an environmental advocate rather than a mediator. Even though Nixon was at time lukewarm, 16 major environmental laws – addressing water, air, solid waste and endangered species – were enacted during his administration.
But the bipartisan consensus on such issues began to erode during the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan named conservative attorney Anne M. Gorsuch to head the EPA at a time when industry was complaining about over-regulation. She cut the EPA budget, reduced staff and slowed down the number of cases filed against polluters.
But a congressional outcry over Gorsuch’s handling of the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup program – holding her in contempt of Congress in December 1982 – eventually led to her resignation in March 1983, when Reagan brought back Ruckelshaus to stabilize the EPA for the next two years.
“It's cyclical. The more active EPA is, the more controversy,” Ruckelshaus wrote later. The next major backlash against the EPA came from the right, when the GOP gained control of the House in 1994 and Speaker Newt Gingrich helped lead another effort to roll back some regulations. As Ruckelshaus explained in his essay:
“The anti-environmental push of the '90s is prompted by the pro-environmental excess of the late '80s, which was prompted by the anti-environmental excess of the early '80s, which was prompted by the pro-environmental excess of the '70s.”
Under that pendulum theory, the GOP assault on environmental regulations in the last couple of years represents the latest swing to the right, which could go further if Republicans take control of the Senate and White House in the November elections.
In an interview, Blunt, the fifth-ranking Senate Republican, said his criticism was not so much aimed at Jackson personally as at the Obama administration’s aggressive promulgation of new environmental regulations at a time of economic hardship. He accused the EPA and the White House of a “lack of concern about the impact on families and the economy of the regulations they put out, one after another.”
That includes a “war on coal,” Blunt contended, that hurts Missouri. “Instead of trying to work to make ‘clean coal’ a more useable fuel, they clearly are working to make it difficult for states like Missouri that benefit from good utility rates based on coal – by putting those out of business.”
Shimkus, whose southern Illinois district includes coal mines, accuses the EPA of "moving ahead on a plan to make coal un-economic through increased regulations and to drive coal out of the electricity-generation portfolio.” He says the new Prairie State coal-fired power plant near Marissa, Ill., expends two-thirds of its resources in meeting environmental regulations and only a third in generating electricity for its customers.
While half of Illinois' electricity is generated by nuclear power, Shimkus said "Missouri is going to get clobbered" by new EPA power-plant regulations because about 80 percent of its power is generated at coal-fired plants. He pointed to this week's Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of St. Louis-based Patriot Coal Corp. as "a warning signal" about the nation's coal industry. But the coal industry's problems relate more to the decreasing cost of natural gas, most experts say, than to regulation.
Blunt and Shimkus also fault the EPA for trying to make life difficult for farmers, with Blunt accusing the agency of “pursuing longer than they should have the rule about fugitive dust on farms [and] spending a whole lot of money ... looking into whether milk spilt on a farm should come under the ‘hazardous waste’ requirements.”
But the agency says it opted not to pursue the farm-dust and spilt-milk regulations. And the EPA takes issue with a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, called the Superfund Common Sense Act, that Long says would “stop the EPA from classifying livestock waste as a hazardous substance.” In other words, a manure regulation.
At a hearing in Shimkus’ subcommittee on June 27, Long said the EPA “continues to illustrate its lack of common sense as it hurries to enact more overzealous regulation that ends up crippling job creators in southwest Missouri and across our country.”
But Mathy Stanislaus, who heads the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, told the panel that the agency “has never designated manure as a hazardous substance nor ... ever designated a farm a Superfund site and has no plans to do so.”
Explaining that the rule was aimed mainly at giant feedlots whose waste emits ammonia and other potentially hazardous substances, Stanislaus said the rule exempts farms as long as they are not “large concentrated animal feeding operations.” He said Long’s bill could lead to “a substantial danger to the public health and the environment” by preventing the EPA from acting against large manure-waste lagoons.
A prominent Senate supporter of the EPA, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, assails such House efforts to roll back environmental regulations. Arguing that it is “a myth that a clean environment is antithetical to a strong economy,” Boxer said in October that the GOP was engaged in “unprecedented, outrageous attacks on the EPA and our landmark environmental laws.”
Taking a more moderate stand, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., opposed “cap and trade” legislation, spoke out against tighter regulation of “farm dust,” tried to add an amendment to the Senate farm bill to give a greater voice to an agriculture representative in EPA rulemaking, and in recent months has sought delays on tighter regulations on boilers and utilities.
“The EPA needs to make sure that when decisions are being made, the folks on the ground who will be affected by those decisions are at the table,” McCaskill said in a statement to the Beacon.
“Everybody, especially the EPA, needs to be using common sense to protect the health of Missourians, and I believe we can achieve that without burdening our local communities and farmers and ranchers with unreasonable rules.”
Shimkus is not among the conservatives who want to do away with the EPA, but he wants more scrutiny of its proposals. “The Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act have been very helpful," the Illinois lawmaker said. "But we are now at a point now when we ask: Can we get to 'perfection'? At what cost? And who is defining perfection?”
Mercury rules among the most costly and controversial
Among the most controversial EPA regulation issues – in terms of its potential impact on health as well as its likely cost to utilities and the economy – are the agency's landmark federal standards to limit power plant emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants.
In announcing the new mercury and air toxics standards in December, Jackson said they aim to “protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution and provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs.”
But even the EPA estimates that the costs of retrofitting more than 600 aging power plants – including several in Missouri – would be substantial, an estimated $9.6 billion a year when the standards go into effect. Normally, power plants would be required to comply with the standards within three years, but the new rule would allow states such as Missouri to request extensions of up to two more years.
While Illinois is among the states with mercury-emission standards already in place, Missouri’s many coal-fired plants are not subject to state-defined limits on mercury emissions. The Clean Air Act of 1990 allowed the EPA to regulate such emissions, but lawsuits and other delays have allowed many power plants to keep operating.
The cost of compliance in Missouri with the utility MACT rules are likely to exceed $200 million over three to five years, an Ameren Missouri official said in December. That’s because the regulation will require tighter controls for mercury, particulates and acid gases at every power plant in the state.
But the EPA and environmentalists argued that the health benefits outweigh the costs. Mercury pollutants are considered among the most serious risks to health, as the chemical tends to gather in watersheds after being emitted from power plants. The EPA estimates that the new safeguards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year. Particulate standards are estimated to help prevent about 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis.
A report by Environment Missouri said the state ranked 11th-highest in total mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants in 2009, while Illinois ranked seventh. That year, Ameren's Labadie plant in Franklin County ranked as the 15th-highest mercury emitter among the 450 coal-fired plants across the country; another report last month from the Environmental Integrity Project listed the Labadie plant among the nation’s worst in terms of the potential impact of its emissions on health.
John Hickey, who heads the St. Louis chapter of the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club, applauded the EPA for the new mercury-pollution standard, arguing that it will improve health in Missouri because “many waterways in the metro area” are on a list with higher than acceptable mercury pollution. He also credits the EPA for instituting new air pollution safeguards against sulfur dioxide and says “the new rules on carbon dioxide pollution are a real game-changer.”
In general, Hickey said “the EPA has taken great strides under Lisa Jackson, and has achieved a variety of major achievements that are relevant to the St. Louis area.” Those include the recent agreement with the Metropolitan Sewer District on sewer overflows; the settlement with Doe Run to clean up the Herculaneum smelter and other lead sites; and the EPA lawsuit seeking to require Ameren Missouri to install better pollution controls at its Rush Island power plant.
In June, Senate Democrats – including McCaskill and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. – turned back an effort by Blunt and other GOP senators to block the utility MACT regulations. Blunt said that would save consumers billions of dollars in higher utility bills, but Boxer argued that it “would have allowed polluters to release more toxic, poisonous emissions into our air, leading to premature deaths, heart attacks and asthma.”
A couple of weeks later, McCaskill – who has been under political pressure in Missouri to oppose strict regulation – announced that she had joined a bipartisan group of senators in signing a letter to Obama urging a two-year delay in implementing the utility MACT regulations to give power companies more time to retrofit.
The senators wrote that the added delay – in some cases, allowing for six years for full compliance – “will allow more time to order and install equipment, to give the required public notice and to apply for necessary permits. It will minimize the possibility of disruptions in reliable electric service.”
Warring studies on impact of EPA
As in many policy disputes, experts on both sides of the issues are able to generate studies that support their point of view – and the environment is no exception.
Republicans tend to base their criticism of the EPA on complaints from industries, utilities, farmers and ranchers that the tightening of red-tape environmental regulations is driving up their costs and slowing economic growth.
“I’ve questioned Lisa Jackson on cost-benefit analysis. And when you look at their [EPA] cost-benefit analysis, it never really adds up in any reasonable way,” said Blunt.
“The proposed boiler MACT rule for industrial sites – that’s a $20 billion cost. On utility MACT, [the EPA’s] own view of the impact is $9.6 billion – all of which would be passed along in higher electricity costs,” said Blunt.
Adding potential costs from a new cooling-tower intake rule ($3 million) and a cross-state air pollution rule ($2.4 billion), Blunt contends the total is about “$12 billion that will be passed along to utility customers” over a decade, most of which would be passed along to consumers.
But environmental groups counter that the benefits of the new rules – mainly in terms of health – far outweigh the costs. At a news conference last fall, Boxer released a report by her committee’s Democratic staff that used Commerce Department to estimate that $300 billion in revenues and 1.7 million jobs had been generated since the EPA’s creation by industries that are involved in environmental protection. The report also estimated the health benefits of clean-air protections would amount to $2 trillion by 2012.
The EPA “and the nation's landmark environmental safeguards were created with overwhelming bipartisan consensus in Congress and support from Republican and Democratic presidents,” the report contends. “Forty years of achievements are now threatened by partisan attacks.”
Yet critics say the costs of tightening regulations are too high. Margo Thorning, chief economist at the nonprofit American Council for Capital Formation, took issue with an EPA report on the costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act from 1990 to 2020, which estimated that the improvements in air quality would “reach almost $2 trillion for the year, a value which vastly exceeds the cost of efforts to comply” with the law.
In an op-ed, Thorning contended that “the much-touted $2 trillion claim is based on survey data that asks individuals what they would be “willing to pay” ... for a small increase in life expectancy and the wage differential between occupations of different riskiness.” She said such surveys “have no link to overall economic activity and do not address how” they address the main elements of the economy.
Thorning argued that “new, tighter emission standards should not be imposed without careful review of their costs relative to their benefits.” Shimkus agrees, saying that America now has “the cleanest air and water since the industrial revolution. Everyone accepts the premise that federal government has a role in ensuring that we breathe clean air and drink clean water. The question we’re grappling with is: How clean in clean? And what is the cost of compliance?”
Jackson, arguing that the EPA already assesses costs and benefits, warned that further delays in such regulations would “give big polluters a pass in complying with the standards that more than half of the power plants across the country already meet.” She added:
“How we respond to this assault on our environmental and public health protections will mean the difference between sickness and health — in some cases, life and death — for hundreds of thousands of citizens.”