February 23, 2016

Would EPA let a private business get away with this?

By Jonathan Wood Attorney

Controversy continues to boil over the Animas River spill. In case you don’t recall, this spill occurred late last year when EPA contractors burst a plugged mine, sending three million gallons of waste water (including arsenic) into the Animas River and other waterways. EPA waited nearly 24 hours to tell anyone about the massive spill, significantly understated the size of the leak, and downplayed the risks of exposure to toxic chemicals.

In the wake of the spill, Congress has called repeatedly for investigations and the release of documents. Recently, Republicans on the House Committee on Natural Resources released a 73-page report questioning EPA’s investigations of itself and inconsistencies between EPA’s report and the Department of Interior’s. Once again, the congressmen are calling for EPA to be more forthcoming, so that there can be a public and frank discussion of this disaster.

Can you imagine how EPA would be treating this if a private business had caused the spill, rather than the government? If it did everything right, a private business would be facing millions of dollars in cleanup costs. If, like EPA, the company initially kept the spill secret, substantially underestimated the amount, and made public statements downplaying the risks, it would instead be facing massive civil and criminal fines. Its executives might also be threatened with individual fines and substantial jail time.*

None of those will happen to the EPA bureaucrats responsible for the spill. The government will pick up the tab for the cleanup but, ultimately, you and I bear those costs (as taxpayers); EPA doesn’t. The only accountability for bureaucrats is bad publicity and political backlash, which only works if the agency is completely transparent. Here’s hoping that EPA fully complies with Congress’ demands.

*Much of this is unfair and symptomatic of a broader overcriminalization problem. EPA officials shouldn’t be thrown in jail for an accident that may have been beyond their control. But neither should ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, the government isn’t as forgiving when ordinary people make mistakes as when supposed-expert bureaucrats do.

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