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Waxman Report: EPA ‘Decimated’ Clean Water Act

California Rep. Henry Waxman (D) might be headed for the chairmanship of the House energy committee, but not before he gets a final shot at the Bush administration from atop the oversight panel.

A report released today from Waxman’s office — a joint effort with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, headed by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) — found that the Environmental Protection Agency has shown a lax interest in enforcing the Clean Water Act in recent years, leading to hundreds of instances when investigations have been neglected and waterways have been threatened. From Waxman’s statement:

Our investigation reveals that the clean water program has been decimated as hundreds of enforcement cases have been dropped, downgraded, delayed, or never brought in the first place. We need to work with the new Administration to restore the effectiveness and integrity to this vital program.

The controversy surrounds a 2006 Supreme Court ruling on the Clean Water Act (Rapanos v. United States), which restricted traditional interpretations of the law by requiring the EPA and other federal agencies to show that a waterway is a “significant nexus” to “traditional navigable waters” before officials can apply the environmental protections under the act. Following the Bush administration’s interpretation of that vague ruling, Waxman found, the EPA has whitewashed hundreds of potential violations.

The effects, according to the findings, are nationwide. The EPA branch in Dallas, for example, reported in January that it had 76 cases of confirmed oil spills, “but no follow-up for penalties or corrective action has been sought due to difficulties asserting jurisdiction post-Rapanos.”

That same month, officials in the EPA’s Denver office sent notice to the agency’s headquarters that, “We literally have hundreds of OPA [Oil Pollution Act] cases in our ‘no further action’ file due to the Rapanos decision, most of which are oil spill cases.”

Another example: Last February, an official in the EPA’s San Francisco office announced that the agency was abandoning a case against a potential Clean Water Act violator, explaining the reason thusly:

It is time to pull the plug on keeping this case on life support. With the march of time largely attributable to the impact on the case by Senor Rapanos and his merry band of supreme court justices we had lost many many violations due to statute of limitations . . . . So we will withdraw the referral, and save our ammo for another fight.

Also a subject of the Democrats’ consternation, the EPA redacted many of the documents it provided to the committees — or simply refused to provide them at all. From a summary of the report:

EPA refused to produce hundreds of documents to the Committees and redacted many of the documents it did produce. EPA concealed the identity of corporations and individuals accused of polluting waters and the specific waters that may have been affected.

Waxman and Oberstar also sent the findings to President-elect Barack Obama, complete with a request “to restore the effectiveness and integrity” of the enforcement program.

The first step in that process occurred yesterday, when Obama named Lisa Jackson — former head of New Jersey’s Dept. of Environmental Protection — to lead the EPA next year. In the wake of the mess left behind by current EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, environmentalists are ecstatic over the thought of the imminent change.

Indeed, the Sierra Club issued a statement yesterday saying Jackson “brings a strong scientific background to an agency where for the past eight years science and knowledge have been systematically corrupted and disregarded.”

Ouch.

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