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EPA: A Paragon Of Government Waste

Just when you think you’ve seen every manifestation of incompetence, corruption and dishonesty that’s possible in a government agency, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) comes up with something new and different. This time it’s violations of federal law by engaging in “covert propaganda” and “grassroots lobbying.”

Government Accountability Office investigators found that the EPA illegally used Thunderclap, a social media site, “to correct what [EPA] viewed as misinformation.” Government use of social media is not unlawful per se; many agencies use it to communicate their actions and policies to the public. But the EPA crossed the line when it asked members of the public to share EPA-composed propaganda on Facebook or Twitter without attributing it to the government. Neglecting to reveal the source was the basis of the “covert propaganda” violation, because the law says that citizens must know when messages presented to them were created by their government.

Federal agencies are supposed to be apolitical, and federal law prohibits lobbying for or against proposed legislation, but an EPA blog post contained links to websites that encouraged members of the public to, for example, “urge your senators to defend Clean Water Act safeguards for critical streams and wetlands.” This “grassroots lobbying” was a violation of federal law because at the time, Congress was considering a number of pieces of legislation to derail the EPA’s “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) regulation.

The combination of EPA’s “covert propaganda” and “grassroots lobbying” and the agency’s ideological efforts to achieve “environmental justice”–which it defines as “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies”–is a prescription for more of the zealotry and malfeasance for which EPA is renowned.

EPA has a long history of actions that are illegal, unethical and incompetent. Various national and state policy groups in January raised objections and concerns about Obama administration plans to impose cap-and-trade style emissions restrictions nationwide. A coalition coordinated by William Yeatman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute compiled and submitted comments from more than 20 groups that questioned the legitimacy of EPA’s implementation of the president’s Clean Power Plan. Specifically, its Model Federal Implementation Plan appears to be a cap-and-trade scheme that is the product of a defective political process, and thereby raises concerns under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (In early February the Clean Power Plan was stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which directed the EPA to cease implementation until the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court itself renders a final decision on litigation to overturn the rule.)

An EPA legal stratagem that has received attention from Sen. David Vitter and other Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee is the “sue and settle” maneuver that federal agencies, including the EPA, use to advance their radical environmental agenda in a way that substitutes a judicial mechanism for the customary interface of legislation and agency rulemaking. The way this works is that extremist environmental groups (some of which receive government grants) sue the federal government on the grounds that agencies are failing to meet their regulatory obligations, and then, behind closed doors, the activists and Obama administration officials concoct a settlement agreement that furthers activists’ (and regulators’) radical goals.

Another underhanded scheme was exposed several years ago that would have diverted EPA “research” funds to pay outside public relations consultants up to $5 million over five years to improve the website of the Office of Research and Development, conduct focus groups on how to polish the office’s image, and produce ghostwritten articles praising the agency “for publication in scholarly journals and magazines.”

This payola scheme is similar to the agency’s longstanding practice of buying influence by doling out hundreds of millions of dollars each year to certain favored nonprofit organizations—money that, according to the inspector general and Government Accountability Office, is dispersed with no public notice, competition or accountability. The GAO investigators documented systematic malfeasance by regulators, including: (1) making grants to grantees who were unable to fulfill the terms of the grants; (2) favoring an exclusive clique of grantees without opening the grants to competition; (3) funding “environmental” grants for activities that lack any apparent environmental benefit; and (4) failing to ensure that grantees performed the objectives identified in the grants.

EPA rulemaking often makes little sense. The agency persists in spending more and more to address smaller and smaller risks. In one analysis by the Office of Management and Budget, of the 30 least cost-effective regulations throughout the government, the EPA had imposed no fewer than 17. For example, the agency’s restrictions on the disposal of land that contains certain wastes prevent 0.59 cancer cases per year–about three cases every five years–and avoid $20 million in property damage, at an annual cost of between $194 million and $219 million.

Another example of flawed decision-making at the EPA is the imposition of overly stringent ambient air standards under the Clean Air Act. Clean air is desirable, of course, but an EPA rule finalized in 2012 that created new emissions standards for coal- and oil-fired electric utilities was ill-conceived. According to an analysis by Diane Katz and James Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation, “The benefits are highly questionable, with the vast majority being unrelated to the emissions targeted by the regulation. The costs, however, are certain: an estimated $9.6 billion annually. The regulations will produce a significant loss of electricity generating capacity, which [will] undermine energy reliability and raise energy costs across the entire economy.” 

Stung repeatedly by such benefit-cost calculations, EPA has begun more frequently to manipulate the benefit side by invoking so-called “non-use benefits” of regulations, such as “the value one places on knowing that an aquatic ecosystem is healthy” or secondary and tertiary ecosystem impacts.” The problem with such supposed benefits is that estimating them is highly prone to wishful thinking. (Read: plucking numbers from the air.) For example, regulators might “calculate” that a significant improvement in water quality in the Mississippi River could be a source of benefit to people throughout the nation, not just those who use the river or who live near it, because the river is nationally symbolic.

EPA A Paragon of Government Waste

An EPA contractor works on the clean up in the aftermath of the blowout at the Gold King mine, which triggered a major spill of toxic wastewater outside Silverton, Colo., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

EPA officials are the Darth Vaders of the federal bureaucracy. Typical was an incident last August when an EPA cleanup crew accidentally triggered a breach in an abandoned gold mine in the southwestern part of Colorado, spilling three million gallons of highly toxic mining waste that contaminated waterways in Colorado and New Mexico. Glenn Lammi of the Washington Legal Foundation has argued persuasively that EPA officials should be prosecuted for criminal negligence and reckless disregard, but of course that won’t happen.

Equally bad was the EPA’s handling of the lead contamination of the water supply of Flint, Michigan.Federal regulators

battled Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality behind the scenes for at least six months over whether Flint needed to use chemical treatments to keep lead lines and plumbing connections from leaching into drinking water. The EPA did not publicize its concern that Flint residents’ health was jeopardized by the state’s insistence that such controls were not required by law.

To long-time EPA watchers, screw-ups that endanger lives and damage the environment are not at all surprising.  The EPA has long been scientifically, intellectually and ethically bankrupt, arguably the worst regulatory agency in the history of the world. But perhaps I understate.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.  

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Name: Richard Billies

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