With Money Tight, the EPA Is Dialing Down Actual Enforcing

Once upon a time -- and we're talking like three years ago -- the Environmental Protection Agency was a force to be reckoned with. EPA regulators were throwing their weight around and pushing the issue on things like biofuels, air quality and the effect of fracking on water quality. They had the White House behind them and the budget to do it, so they did.

Well, it seems the age of the mighty EPA is a thing of the past, at least for now. With a shrinking budget, fewer resources and a dearth of political will, the EPA is being transformed from a tiger of an enforcement agency -- taking on the oil industry and tilting at air-quality issues with the states -- and becoming a litter-box-trained house cat. In this metaphor, it's an organization not above catching a mouse or two, but don't expect it to bring home the big game any time soon, says Tracy Hester, professor of environmental law at University of Houston.

"The program has been going through some changes. The pot is getting smaller and smaller, and the EPA is having to pick and choose what gets enforced and what doesn't," says Hester.

At the end of 2013, the EPA announced it was considering letting nature take its course and not pushing for clean-up efforts on the Cavalcade Street Superfund site in north Houston. If the new "cleanup" plan is approved, the agency will make sure cancer-causing contaminants don't get out of the site, but it will end efforts to try and actually clean up the Superfund site.

Officially, the agency is stepping back because cleaning up these sites is really hard, but it's not a decision the EPA of a few years ago would have made. "The EPA backing off like that is pretty unusual," says Hester.

The EPA is also expected to take a hands-off approach to fracking issues. While there are some concerns (as anyone who has lived on top of the Barnett Shale can attest) about the effect of hydraulic fracturing drilling techniques on water quality -- concerns that were raised in an internal Watchdog report made public on Christmas Eve -- federal regulators lack the political will and the resources to do anything about it, Reuters reports.

The internal report was focused on a case from 2011 when the EPA initially issued an emergency order asking oil and gas drilling company Range Resources to monitor some water wells in Parker County, Texas. This was a strong stance to take, but then the EPA reversed itself in 2012 and stepped away from enforcement of the order.

And there will be more decisions -- though "undecisions" might be a more accurate word -- like that to come. "Bottom line, the EPA has announced it is not going to have the same enforcement it has had in prior years, and that almost always means a reduced number of enforcement acts," Hester said.

On top of that, the EPA is in the middle of looking extremely foolish as John Beale, a senior policy adviser in the EPA Office of Air and Radiation, prepares to serve 32 months in prison for pretending to be a CIA operative and using his fake-CIA-operative status to not come into work for months.

Beale might have gotten away with that one, but the jig was up when he retired in 2011, had a party and everything, but continued to collect his paycheck for the next 19 months. Thus the EPA's current image is one of an agency that totally missed a top employee lying and stealing a ton of money from the government, which probably won't help get the EPA budget restored any time soon.

But don't despair quite yet. As some elf or other said in Lord of the Rings, all is not lost. Historically, the EPA has high times and low times. During the eras when the agency is well funded, the inspectors are out there with a firm hand on all that regulating to be done.

It's a part of the mission, created when the framework of environmental law -- a net formed of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Resources Recovery -- was put into place beginning in the 1970s. With cuts pretty well eviscerating the EPA budget, there simply won't be the money to fund heavy-duty enforcement, but that's where people tend to step up their game, says Hester.

"All of the laws passed to protect the environment have provided an interlocking framework, and it gave the public the ability to sue, empowering the public to step in and enforce the law when the government hasn't. The EPA has waxed and waned a lot over the years," he said.

While Hair Balls admires the optimism here, we have to admit we do have some doubts that "the people" are going to be just as good as actual regulation. Beggars can't be choosers, though, so here's hoping he's right.

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