Opinion

EPA’s Costly Legacy Of Neglect And Scandal Spills Into Puerto Rico

As the Obama administration winds down, the tenure of Gina McCarthy as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency will go down in history as a bewildering and frustrating abuse of taxpayer money. For eight years, the White House has put all its efforts into headline-grabbing climate change proposals, but its environmental legacy here at home has been marked with scandal and neglect. McCarthy’s EPA has waged war on good faith players in the private sector, while turning a blind eye to appalling public sector scandals where state and local government entities poisoned entire communities.

Case in point: in February 2015, McCarthy made heated comments to a Senate panel, demanding an $8.6 billion discretionary budget that included a 6 percent increase for her ambitious climate change agenda. A centerpiece was the job-killing Clean Power Plan, which focuses heavily on decimating the domestic power generation sector. More money was needed, she said, to save the planet from rising seas and looming superstorms. And yet a federal investigation would later reveal, at the same time she was testifying, her agency was being informed about a crisis unfolding in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water supply. As we now know, McCarthy didn’t lift a finger to save Flint until much later, when it was too late and thousands of families were poisoned.

It is the nature of government agencies to want more and more of our money to do less and less of what they should be doing. But the Obama administration’s EPA has been masterful at this scheme. Every attempt by the private sector to work in good faith was answered by bigger and more expensive policy proposals that would dismantle entire sectors of that industry. The pressure to focus on global issues, for the biggest international headlines, let basic failures of oversight by the public sector go ignored and unaddressed until crises erupted.  

Such is the case with Puerto Rico, where the local government’s corruption and neglect allowed the territory to collapse into a fiscal mess until the White House sought to ride in on a political white horse with a bailout. There was no mention of years of ignoring the burgeoning local crisis in poor governance. The Treasury, of course, only woke up when it saw a boondoggle it couldn’t avoid. And all the while, the EPA was asleep as the switch while the island’s landfills became toxic nightmares of mismanagement.

Even though the Puerto Rico story is now making headlines, the problems on the island go back to the Clinton administration. For what could only have been political reasons, Bill Clinton’s EPA decided to give Puerto Rico local enforcement powers over its municipal landfills in 1994 even though Puerto Rico’s track record was abysmal, with several old dump sites landing on EPA’s Superfund list over the years. Worse yet, it appears that once those powers were granted, the EPA checked out.

There were promises by the municipalities to install the basic equipment that any American landfills had been required to have for generations, like trash covers, liners and other pollution controls. In at least two-thirds of them, the promises were never honored, or only temporarily. For two decades, the EPA has taken minimal action in the face of the scale of the problem, ultimately negotiating deals with some of the landfills that never result in closures, while ignoring others that have turned into scandalously toxic sites.  

Some of Puerto Rico’s landfills have been catching fire every few months, while others send streams of polluted garbage water into neighborhoods every time it rains. One landfill sitting over Puerto Rico’s largest natural aquifer has a lake of toxic runoff sitting at the bottom of a sinkhole next to its uncovered trash pile. Another was documented by local TV reporters in 2013 directly contaminating an important river, even though it had been ordered by EPA to close three years earlier.  But McCarthy’s EPA acted only on paper. All these landfills are still open and still breaking the law to this day.

As a contrast to the mismanagement by the EPA, a small number of landfills that have been consistently in compliance with federal rules are all privately owned and managed. 

Given the EPA’s failure to focus its resources on its core responsibilities, we should not be surprised that little practical results were achieved on anything related to the environment over the last eight years. If the EPA is supposed to protect the public and the environment, it should do so with a modicum of common sense. The agency expends billions of dollars trying to shut down companies that contribute to the well-being of communities all over the country, but turns its back as municipalities contaminate the water and land with impunity. At this point, taxpayers and citizens don’t know who or what the EPA is protecting.