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New York Times Study Points to Failed EPA Regional Model

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The recent New York Times headline Toxic Waters - Clean Water Laws Are Neglected, at a Cost in Suffering is clear evidence that the traditional role of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ten regions is a dismal failure. Polluters in the last five years have violated federal clean water laws more than 500,000 times with many violators escaping fines and punishment. About 60 percent of the polluters were deemed in "significant noncompliance" which translates into the most serious violations like dumping cancer-causing chemicals. The NYT research discovered ten percent of Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark and 40 percent of the nation's public water systems violated the Safe Water Drinking Act at least once.

Fundamental change is needed in the regions. Clearly, we need a new type of EPA in the regions and a new enforcement framework--one that actually protects the environment and public health. We got into this mess by allowing EPA's ten regions to operate as nearly autonomous sub-agencies and by letting "look-the-other-way" collusion with state environmental agencies rule the day. This approach has worked against the public and has favored polluters. Instead of a polluter pays principle, it's the American public that is picking up the tab in terms of higher health costs.

The lapse in enforcement results from EPA regional administrators not "risking their relationship" with states. It seems than many regional administrators also were not that keen on ruffling the feathers of the industry they regulate--and who are often big political campaign contributors. These relationships appear more important than enforcing our environmental laws and protecting public health. Something is rotten about these relationships.

Making families wait for clean water while EPA, state, and local governments meet and debate the families' water contamination problem is criminal. Allowing polluters and violators of clean water laws to escape punishment and endanger public should be a crime. The nation's clean water laws should be enforced equally across the board--not selectively enforced based on residents' income or a community's capacity to hire lawyers, experts, and scientists--and their ability to file lawsuits.

The current EPA enforcement model has promoted unequal protection across the ten regions. In reality, all ten EPA regions are not created equal. Historically, regional administrators have served as a bridge between EPA headquarters and the state and local governments. While on the surface this traditional role may be appealing to state and local government officials who would move the center of power and authority away from Washington, DC to regional offices, it has been a disaster in Region 4, eight states in the South (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee) which have a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and resistance to civil rights and equal environmental protection.

Region 4 is the "poster-child" example why this flawed EPA and state enforcement model needs a complete overhaul. It is not an accident that both the modern civil rights movement and environmental justice movement were born in the South. Nearly four decades of Region 4 harmful and discriminatory decisions have turned too many black communities into the dumping grounds, lowering nearby residents' property values, stealing their wealth, and exposing them to unnecessary environmental health risks.

Because of the history and pattern of unequal enforcement and unequal protection in Region 4, groups are now calling for an EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) environmental justice investigation of the region. The current model is endangering the health and safety of millions of Americans. Now is the time for President Obama to select ten EPA regional administrators that can reshape the agency and get back in the business of protecting public health and the environment and regulating and punishing polluters.

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Robert D. Bullard is Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers (more...)

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