See No Evil?

A few years back, The Onion announced that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was to be rebranded: henceforth, it would be known simply as The Agency. “We’re not really ‘environmental’ anymore, and we certainly aren’t ‘protecting’ anything,” an official was mischievously claimed to have said.

The story was a joke, of course, but as time has gone by it’s come to seem painfully close to the mark. With its rule book bowdlerized by the Bush administration and its enforcement arm all but mothballed, the EPA’s reputation is at an all-time low. This month alone saw the EPA draw fire for punishing a staffer who blew the whistle on agency plans to channel polluted water directly into Biscayne National Park. Meanwhile, California launched legal action to force the agency to green-light its clean-air standards, and agency administrator Steve Johnson faced tough questions from lawmakers about his opposition to the state’s plans.


Perhaps the most glaring indictment, though, came as twelve states announced that they would sue the agency to force the restoration of the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), a vital resource that catalogs the poisonous waste released by American corporations.

The EPA eviscerated the TRI late last year, saying the program placed too great a burden on businesses: Under the agency’s new regulations, companies can spew up to 5,000 pounds of poison into the environment before making a full report. The move gutted a program that had for two decades been a crucial tool for reporters and environmental activists - and saved corporations a paltry $6 million a year in administrative costs.

This isn’t a grey area: It’s a simple question of people’s right to know about the noxious waste being released into their air, water, and soil. Despite a public outcry, the EPA pressed ahead with its plans: State attorney generals say that thousands of companies have now effectively fallen off the radar, and are now free to pollute with virtual impunity.

While the states press the agency in court, Congress is working on legislation designed to roll back the EPA’s attack on the TRI; meanwhile Californian legislators have already passed laws that once implemented will restore the inventory to full force, at least within the Golden State’s boundaries.

That’s all well and good, but it shouldn’t take lawsuits to make the EPA do its job, nor local and federal legislation to undo damage done by the very body that’s supposed to be protecting our interests. It’s time for the EPA to put its house in order - and begin living up to its name.

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