Pruitt's Failed Cooperative Federalism

Federal and state authorities, powers and jurisdictions should work together efficiently and effectively serve the public interest. That’s what is meant by “cooperative federalism”. It is notable that the Trump Administration’s head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is fond of using the term “cooperative federalism”. But it means something markedly different to him. A fancy way of labeling a policy that shifts responsibility for enforcement of environmental protections from his federal agency to the states—many of which, seem relatively disinterested in the role… To see the danger of that concept, take a look at the Midwest, where the public has paid significant consequences when the feds have shirked responsibilities—and states have chosen to stay out of some, quite literally, toxic situations.

Here in Chicago, we have been working with groups on the Southeast Side to address concerns about open piles of the neurotoxin manganese blowing into the community. Now, you’d think that this is the sort of issue that state authorities would jump in on right away: it has garnered tons of press, including a front-page story in the Chicago Tribune (the state’s largest newspaper) that makes clear thousands of Illinoisans live in very close proximity and could be at risk. Yet the State of Illinois has not said a word about the issue. No action by the Illinois EPA. Nothing from the AG’s office. No words of concern from any statewide elected official (though thankfully, U.S. Senator Durbin has spoken out vigorously on the issue).

Worse, look just a few miles down the Lake Michigan shoreline to Northwest Indiana, where the sprawling U.S. Steel facility has spilled toxic chromium into the Lake on multiple occasions. The public only knows about the last occurrence because students at the University of Chicago, working with Surfrider, uncovered documents in which the steel mill asked for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to not talk publicly about the spill. This facility is perched on the drinking water source for millions of Hoosiers, Illinoisans and Michiganders, with intakes in close proximity. Alas, not only did Indiana’s environmental regulators not alert the public about the mishap, but they did not bother to test the water to see what sorts of toxics had been released. The surrounding states have been deferential to Indiana’s initial inaction, despite public outcry.

So, you can see why folks around here have some concerns about “cooperative federalism,” if it seems that perhaps it is unclear who is cooperating.

And those concerns were heightened when Cathy Stepp was appointed as the new Great Lakes region administrator (Region 5). Wisconsin’s Governor Walker noted that he wanted someone with a “Chamber of Commerce point of view” when he appointed her to head that state’s environmental regulator. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a gory summary of her tenure not long ago, detailing significant reductions in enforcement of environmental protections and the rolling back of what had been seen as strong water, conservation and anti-pollution efforts over the state’s history.

So… if the feds don’t want to enforce the law. And some of the states don’t enforce the law. What are communities supposed to do? Are we all on our own?

In Chicago, we can see how local protections can be a stopgap. On the Southeast Side, the community railed against the neurotoxin piles in their midst. In response, the EPA and the City pushed S.H. Bell, the company handling the neurotoxin, to install monitors, and the EPA brought an enforcement action against the company this past summer, based on data from the other monitors. But since august, the EPA has been silent. In this gap, the City has taken action by policing the facilities that store manganese, requiring strict dust control plans under the City’s regulations (that in turn were put in place after the same community fought back against giant mounds of oil refining waste that had shown up in the exact same area), and initiating its own investigation of health impacts from this toxic material. And when Indiana would not take action to address U.S. Steel’s mess—the City sued (and so did Surfrider!).

A weak EPA also sends a clear signal to industrial polluters that there is no cop on the beat. While local rules provide important protections, federal resources are crucial for adequately safeguarding public health. The often-lacking support from state agencies on significant environmental issues in the Midwest demonstrates the need for the EPA to step up in Region 5. The community believes that more is needed and faster, so will continue to fight to ensure that the City is taking all necessary and available measures to defend its residents from S.H. Bell and other manganese threats.  Until then, groups like the Southeast Environmental Task Force, the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, Mom’s Clean Airforce, and NRDC will step into the breach to help ensure accountability and local action. But it sure would be nice if the agencies tasked with this work would be allowed to step up and do their jobs too.

About the Authors

Henry Henderson

Former Director, Midwest Program

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