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House Passes Bill to Gut the Superfund Law

On Thursday, January 9th, at the same time a devastating chemical spill polluted West Virginia’s Elk River, the “Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act  was passed by the House.” This act would essentially transfer responsibility for hazardous waste site cleanup from the EPA to the states and gut the power of the EPA to effectively manage hazardous waste cleanups under Superfund provisions. The bill passed with all but four Republicans voting for it and all but two Democrats voting against it.

Representative Cramer of North Dakota stated that “[t]he legislation improves the efficiency of CERCLA [the “Superfund law’] by removing outdated regulatory deadlines and leveraging existing state laws . . .“ We’ve seen this kind of language before and, in practice, its intent is to make the EPA subordinate to the states in matters of hazardous and toxic waste. This effectively creates a “Halliburton”-type exclusion for potential federal hazardous waste sites: If states do not want to regulate or clean-up, it will not be done. We have seen the disastrous results of this in states like Pennsylvania, right next door to us. in the case of state’s (weak) regulation in fracking.

Localities and States Drag their Feet

If fact, we have seen how states and cities can drag their feet right here in New York: New York City fought  effort to bring in the EPA to clean up the terrible pollution in sites like the Gowanus Canal. City officials, including the Bloomberg Administration and the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, long resisted the designation of the canal as a Superfund site. In part, this reluctance to support a leading role for EPA may have reflected the potential financial liability to the city for its share of the projected $506 million dollars in remediation costs. In fact the site was so designated in 2010 and the EPA put forward a final plan in late 2013, with work to start in 2015 and completion due in about 8 years. These plans, in addition to laying out a process for cleaning up the canal, call for two “CSO retention tanks.” These tanks would hold sewer runoff during heavy storms and prevent untreated sewerage from flowing directly, and untreated, into the canal and overflowing into the surrounding neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, the City is resisting this investment as well.

Without the Superfund law, the EPA would have little leverage to insist on a real cleanup effort in states and localities.

States in Control of Drilling: the Case of Fracking

Pennsylvania shows us exactly what to expect when states are in control of environmental issues. In 2005, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was passed and signed by President Bush. Among many other provisions, it exempts oil and gas producers from many Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Air Act provisions. What this meant was that the federal government took a hands-off approach on regulation of drilling activities where it had to do with drinking water and air pollution and left regulation and enforcement to states.  These provisions, known as the Halliburton Loophole after the company of which Dick Cheney was CEO before becoming US Vice President, created a unique opportunity for oil and gas companies:  “The oil and gas industry is the only industry in America that is allowed by EPA to inject known hazardous materials — unchecked — directly into or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies.”

No surprise, because of the potential economic benefits and political connections of state politicians, states have frequently been weak regulators. And there have been significant costs. While there is considerable controversy on this this issue, much of the arguments that fracking has small health effects comes from organizations that have links to the oil and gas industry. More and more evidence, for example here and here among many, is piling up for potential harm to health done by fracking.

Taking Down Language Tricks

So, back to the “Deadline Obligations Act:” It has little chance of passage in the Senate and the President has already said he would veto it should it come to his desk. However, this is another example of how the right uses arguments about “outdated” regulations and “common-sense” reforms, where neither is true, to make dangerous steps backward seem to be reasonable. We know this is a lie. When we see this, we need to respond quickly – via letters to the editors, op-eds, blog posts, or whatever – to combat this kind of verbal jujitsu dressed up in disarming language.

So, what is your reaction? Leave a comment.