House Republicans Mount Transparently Political Attack on Health & Environmental Safeguards

Over the last few years, House Republicans have unveiled the most anti-environmental, anti-public health legislative agenda in our nation’s history.  Thankfully, they have failed to enact the vast majority of their attacks.  Apparently trying to build support for their rejected dirty rollbacks, these members of Congress have increasingly tried to create tabloid magazine-style scandals to distract from their own shortcomings.

 On Thursday, the Republican majority on the House Science Committee will host a hearing on a patchwork of well-worn industry complaints that they evidently hope will become interesting when travelling together on a three-hour tour.  EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will be the sole witness.  The hearing is entitled “Strengthening Transparency and Accountability within the Environmental Protection Agency” because it sounded better than the more accurate alternative: “Scapegoating to Mask Substantive Attacks on Health and Environmental Safeguards.”

Because at bottom that’s what this hearing and the Republican “transparency” campaign are all about.  The public already knows this, having witnessed similar transparency grievances in the past. Once you peel back the outer skin of the onion, the layers beneath are comprised of the same old conservative political attacks on health and environmental safeguards that are popular with industry allies but rejected by Americans. 

Below NRDC’s experts have catalogued some of the bedrock safeguards and issues that we expect to come under attack tomorrow.  The list should sound familiar.  That’s because the truth is the extremist wing of the Republican Party simply doesn’t have anything new to say beyond “we didn’t get our way and we don’t like it.”        

Ozone pollution

You should expect to hear trumped-up transparency attacks leveled against EPA’s national standards to limit ozone pollution tomorrow. Republicans have attacked these standards as too costly and not needed, but transparency has proven to be a more convenient recent line of attack. Here’s the truth: Congress wrote the 1970 Clean Air Act to require clean air standards that were “requisite to protect the public health” “allowing an adequate margin of safety.” Along with this language, Congress included clear deadlines by which EPA had to comply with the Act. If EPA fails to meet those timelines, the Clean Air Act provides a backstop: the right of citizens to hold EPA accountable when it breaks the law. 

EPA’s ozone standards prove exactly how important this backstop is. When EPA failed to complete its statutorily-required 5 year review of the science and law behind ozone pollution, environmental groups, including NRDC, sued the agency. If EPA follows the science and the law and updates national standards for ozone pollution to within the range supported by science, up to 12,000 lives could be saved every year. What’s more, EPA has found that the net benefits from standards set at even the high end of the scientific range could be as high as $18 billion per year starting in 2020. These life-saving standards are required by law, justified by the science, and would mean huge health savings for the American people.

Soot pollution

Over the summer, the very same committee that tomorrow will question Ms. McCarthy launched an unprecedented attack on EPA’s national standards limiting particle pollution. The committee attacked the science that underlies EPA’s standards and took the extraordinary step of issuing a subpoena to EPA. Chairman Smith attacked a particular group of scientific studies, ignoring the numerous studies that preceded and post-dated these particular efforts. Chairman Smith and his Republican allies claimed the data had not been sufficiently scrutinized, disregarding that, in fact, a reanalysis of those very studies was undertaken.

Moreover, international research supports these studies’ conclusions.  A December 2012 report  entitled the 2010 Global Burden of Disease "estimate[d] over 2.1 million premature deaths and 52 million years of healthy life lost in 2010 due to ambient fine particle air pollution, fully 2/3 of the burden worldwide."  In October of 2013, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer research agency issued a report finding that outdoor air pollution and particulate matter should be classified as carcinogens. The report found that increased levels of soot pollution led to increased incidence of lung and bladder cancer. The science is clear – soot pollution is dangerous. Tighter standards on this dangerous pollution, like those issued by EPA last year will go a long way towards protecting our health.

Obstruction of Environmental Law Enforcement

Another likely topic at tomorrow’s hearing will be Republicans’ accusations that federal agencies engage in collusive litigation practices with public interest groups that predetermine the outcome of rulemakings (pejoratively dubbed “sue-and-settle”). House Republicans have held numerous hearings on this topic but have never pointed to any evidence of this supposedly collusive behavior. In fact, current safeguards in both the rulemaking process and the judiciary prohibit such behavior. 

Republican legislation aimed at this supposed problem seeks to dismantle environmental law enforcement by providing the legal opportunity for third party “intervenors” to obstruct settlement talks and prolong law-breaking when federal agencies are sued for violating the law. Citizen enforcement is one of the cornerstone successes of environmental law. Efforts by industry groups and their allies to dismantle these successes should be viewed as exactly that – pro-pollution end-runs around the laws that Congress wrote to protect our health.

Clean Water

Wetlands and headwater streams provide multiple benefits: they filter pollution, serve as a source of drinking water supply, absorb flood water, and provide habitat for a wide range of aquatic species.  Notwithstanding these important values, Science Committee leaders have recently tried to derail a critical rulemaking initiative by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to restore protections against pollution and destruction for countless streams and wetlands.

Some have demanded that EPA delay proposing the rule indefinitely, even though EPA plans a public rulemaking process and has already initiated a public, independent, and expert peer review of the science it has gathered in support of a proposed rule it has drafted.  

Rather than standing in the way, the Science Committee ought to applaud the agency for gathering scientific evidence about the role of headwaters and wetlands and for subjecting it to review by the public and independent scientists.  This is especially true because many waterways have been in legal limbo for more than a decade and  because clear Clean Water Act rules have long been requested by people across the political spectrum, including Members of Congress, Justices of the Supreme Court, conservation groups, industry associations, and more.

Saving Bristol Bay: Pebble Mine 

Americans are counting on EPA to protect Bristol Bay, Alaska from large-scale mining like the proposed Pebble Mine.  Pebble Mine―a giant gold and copper mine proposed at the headwaters of Bristol Bay―is overwhelming opposed by the region’s residents, commercial fishers and Alaska Natives, whose lives and livelihoods are tied to the tens of millions of wild salmon that return to the Bristol Watershed every year to span. 

EPA has received numerous petitions from federally recognized tribes and others to protect Bristol Bay from Pebble Mine.  In response, the agency conducted a scientific assessment to determine the potential impacts of large-scale mining on salmon and other fish populations, wildlife, development, and Alaska Native communities in the region.  The first draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment was released in May 2012 and underwent extensive public comment and independent peer review.  Based on that public comment and peer review, EPA issued a second draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment earlier this year concluding that Pebble Mine would have “significant” and even “catastrophic” impacts – including the certain dewatering, destruction, and pollution of the Bristol Bay watershed. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy even visited the Bristol Bay region last summer in order to learn more about Pebble Mine, where she heard a unanimous request from a capacity crowd in Dillingham, Alaska to stop the Pebble Mine.

EPA received and reviewed about 900,000 public comments regarding its second draft Watershed Assessment alone.  An analysis of those comments found that 73 percent were supportive of EPA protecting Bristol Bay, including 84 percent of individual comments from Alaska and a staggering 98 percent of individual comments from Bristol Bay residents.  This is in addition to the 233,000 public comments submitted to EPA (over 90% in favor of EPA action) regarding its first draft Watershed Assessment. 

Given the extensive reviews already undertaken, any assertion that the process has lacked public input is simply hot air.  The   EPA should be allowed to do its job and follow the law and science to safeguard this unique place and the people who depend on it.   

Coal Ash: Don’t Poison Our Drinking Water

Coal ash is the non-combustible waste of coal.  The contaminants in coal ash are known to cause bladder, kidney, liver, lung, prostate, and skin cancer.  Most of these incombustible elements are toxic metals.

If the coal ash is recycled, the toxins are locked inside. If it is disposed on a wet impoundment or regular landfill, it leaches to surface and ground water. Many utilities built impoundments out of the coal ash itself. These are not safe, as shown by the disaster in Tennessee, when a impoundment failed and a town was almost destroyed.

EPA has proposed two regulatory options: treating the waste similar to a hazardous waste or treating it more in line with municipal waste.  Polluting industries have been pushing Congress to pre-empt any standards and allow states to do what they want.  Of course, most coal-heavy states have little or no regulation, so this is a classic case of offering to have the fox guard the hen house.   

Republicans may claim that a bill introduced by Congressman David McKinley (R-WV) protects the public, but two CRS reports conclude otherwise.  The argument that coal ash recycling will stop because of the stigma if the waste is treated as hazardous simply does not add up.    

EPA should be allowed to move forward with cleaning up this hazardous material to protect Americans.

The above roster is just a sampling of what we might hear at tomorrow’s hearing—other topics may rear their head as well, including denying the reality of climate change, tar sands, and renewable fuels.  Whatever the specific topic, however, we already know the pre-determined goal: launch yet another politically motivated attack to stop the EPA from doing its job to protect our health and welfare.