Got Spill Rule Exemptions? Despite Hysteria, Milk Industry Not An EPA Regulatory Target

There has been a lot of press coverage recently over an alleged push by the Environmental Protection Agency to subject facilities that store certain quantities of milk to the oil spill prevention requirements of the Clean Water Act.  The truth is completely different than these reports, but they persist. Could that be because the false claims fit better with the too-common narrative that EPA is an agency gone wild?

So here's the deal: EPA implements the spill prevention, control, and countermeasure program under the Act, which is designed to ensure that facilities -- such as oil refineries -- with significant oil on site take steps to prevent spills into water bodies and are responsible for notifying officials and taking corrective action when spills occur.  Because milk has oil in it, certain milk-handling facilities would be subject to the law unless EPA acted to exempt them. 

To hear some folks' take on this situation, EPA is affirmatively moving to try to regulate milk spills.  For instance, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial piece claiming that EPA finalized a new rule in mid-January to subject milk facilities to the oil spill rules.  Anti-government types similarly have made this accusation, including John Stossel and a Hoover Institution fellow, and it is all over the Internet, where posted stories to this effect reliably draw online comments about EPA overreaching.

But, umm, small problem -- it is not true.  As described in a recent Greenwire piece, and as Ken Ward comprehensively explains, EPA is working to give milk handlers an out from the law.  The agency proposed this exemption in January 2009, and last October it indefinitely postponed the rules that would otherwise apply, so that requirements wouldn't take effect for affected milk facilities while it worked on finalizing the exemption.  What the Journal was thinking about when it said EPA finalized a rule in mid January of this year, who knows -- I just ran a search of the Federal Register, and EPA did not issue any rules in January under the spill program.  So, EPA is most definitely not trying to stretch or change the rules to regulate milk under the oil spill program; it is trying to change the rules to get milk out.

I have a few theories on how this ridiculous rumor got started.  Could've been an innocent mistake, sure.  Maybe the "crying over spilled milk" line -- which appears in loads of stories I've seen about the issue -- is too appealing to pass up.  I personally suspect that it might have something to do with the anti-EPA message machine, by which I mean people who characterize EPA as out to expand its power over the U.S. economy and over people's daily lives, or to kill U.S. jobs, rather than as an agency responsible for protecting Americans' health and communities.  These kinds of claims are repeated so much, including by Congressional leaders who should know better, that I think it's easy to assume they are true and that everything the agency does is in pursuit of an irrational anti-business compulsion to bring industry under its regulatory umbrella. 

But maybe this is an opportunity. I hope that exposing inaccuracies like this will lead people to question other claims about EPA and how it does its job.  The media and concerned citizens need to question absurd allegations, like that EPA is at war with coal, or that EPA and other regulations pose "a clear and present danger to American agriculture".  Let's hope for some healthy skepticism in the future -- the national debate about environmental protections could use some honesty about what EPA and our environmental laws really do.