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EPA Role Threatened as House Passes Bill

BRADENTON -- The future role of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in question. Wednesday, by a vote of 239 to184, the House of Representatives passed the first step legislating legal authority for water quality discharge standards to the states. The EPA will no longer be equipped with the authority to veto permits approved by U.S. the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) if the bill's success continues through the Senate and the White House.

Last January, for the first time in 12 years, the EPA exercised their veto power over the ACOE approved permit for the largest single mountaintop removal project in West Virginia's history. The EPA claimed it reviewed over 50,000 public comments concerning the 2,300 acre mine proposal in Logan county. The EPA claimed the "Spruce Mine" would use destructive and unsustainable practices that jeopardize the health of the Appalachian
communities. The decision came after a year of negotiations to convince the Spruce Mine operators to not dispose their waste into local streams. Mine operators would not commit to EPA's request.

The grievances Congress has with the EPA go far beyond the coal industry and broader than partisan politics. The bill that passed the House was a bipartisan bill, sponsored by Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-WV and John Mica, R-FL. They dubbed the legislation the "Clean Water Act Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011." Although both co-sponsors are West Virginia Republican representatives, the vote clearly sent a message.

State environmental agencies often take offense to the federal standards the EPA represent. The EPA regularly struggles with the moderate guidelines states accept to appease powerful corporations that operate within their borders. With the troubled economy and high unemployment, corporations have found it convenient and effective to put environmental regulations under fire. Obviously, fewer regulators and lax operational procedures translates to more profits.

But ducking the environmental issues coal and other mining present, is as much a cat and mouse game as it is one of law and order. State regulatory agencies seldom have the budget to oversee the wherewithal of large industries and the enforcement incentive to plow through the political clout these large corporation carry. With large companies most states rely on the honor system of self-reporting to mishaps. These were the practices that encouraged the enactment of the "Clean Water Act" in the 70's.

On December 22, 2008, at the Kingston Fossil Plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville, the dike broke, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of a wet coal ash pond -- enough toxic arsenic and mercury laced slurry to cover 3,000 acres a foot deep. The spill (525 million gallons), was over 40 times the amount in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. It flowed into the Tennessee River - the water supply for Chattanooga and the many millions of people living downstream in Kentucky and Alabama. How does one calculate the cost to a spill like this, and how could it have been prevented? Some say occurrences like this give reason to expand federal oversight, not cut them out of the picture.

Those promoting this legislation claim the EPA is usurping the state's rightful duty to defend its waters. Yet even under the claim of excessive oversight on the part of the EPA, our country's waters are returning to the toxic conditions they once were. The diseases connected to water pollution caused by industrial waste and corporate neglect are said to be costing this country hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Could that be because watchdogs are becoming an endangered species?


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