National unemployment rates may be high, but there’s no shortage of work if you happen to be an academic type willing to conduct Environmental Protection Agency-funded research and undertake EPA directed studies. Last October, the EPA formally began the process of creating new stormwater management rules. We’ve actually got quite the pile of stormwater management rules already, including measures crafted during the Clinton administration and then implemented during the Bush administration. But, having never met a regulatory program that went far enough for her tastes, EPA head Lisa Jackson took one look at a report prepared the National Research Council  that reviewed the Agency’s stormwater management programs and fell in love. This will come as a shock, but the NRC committee  that looked into the issue – a committee consisting mostly of academics – concluded that new stormwater regulations are desperately needed.
The NRC’s recommendations are troubling, but entirely typical of what happens when a group of professors get together to decide how to run the world. It should be noted up front that I did not read the NRC’s report in full, since the organization charges the public more than forty bucks  to purchase copies of this study, notwithstanding that it is being used to set public policy. No doubt the full report contains a number of hidden gems, but the Executive Summary, which NRC kindly allows citizens to download for free, provides enough of a peek behind the curtains. If Jackson’s EPA follows the NRC’s advice – and history suggests that Jackson generally takes the most radical environmental advice available – then there are more rules coming, more restrictions on your lives and, of course, more tax dollars that need to be redistributed. If you think that using the adjective “radical” to describe the advice Jackson is getting from NRC is a bit over the top, don’t take my word for it. Here’s how NRC describes what is needed in their Executive Summary:
“Radical changes to the current regulatory program (see Chapter 6) appear necessary to provide meaningful regulation of stormwater dischargers in the future.”
What kind of radical changes appear necessary? How about having USEPA use its licensing authority to place further restrictions on the formulation and use of even more consumer products? Quoting again from the Executive Summary:
“EPA should engage in much more vigilant regulatory oversight in the national licensing of products that contribute significantly to stormwater pollution. De-icing chemicals, materials used in brake linings, motor fuels, asphalt sealants, fertilizers, and a variety of other products should be examined for their potential contamination of stormwater. Currently, EPA does not apparently utilize its existing licensing authority to regulate these products in a way that minimizes their contribution to stormwater contamination. States can also enact restrictions on or tax the application of pesticides or other particularly toxic products. Even local efforts could ultimately help motivate broader scale, federal restrictions on particular products.”
In other words, if a product is used outdoors or is part of a machine that is used outdoors, like your automobile for example, it needs to be regulated, restricted and possibly taxed. Just what an ailing economy needs. What could possibly go wrong? It’s easy to imagine some well-meaning EPA committee deciding that tire residue left on the street, to take one example, helps deteriorate stormwater quality. Ergo, the EPA should come up with standards for tire wear. Of course such standards might make tires more expensive, but that’s not EPA’s problem; they’re here to save a planet or two. Or perhaps such standards would unintentionally lead to more blowouts, but that will be the tire manufacturer’s fault, not EPA’s. Of course I don’t know if any of this is going to happen as far as tires are concerned, but that kind of thing will inevitably happen somewhere when EPA sticks its nose into the free market. It always does. The EPA is Exhibit A when it comes to demonstrating the timeless truth that is the Law of Unintended Consequences.
NRC also believes that another layer of bureaucracy is necessary to better manage stormwater. They believe that stormwater permitting should be “watershed based,” a proposal that would essentially create a new regulatory authority in between the local agencies that already have jurisdiction over stormwater and state and federal agencies charged with overseeing their programs. How to pay for more rules and more bureaucracy? The federal government ought to pour more money into these programs of course.
The regulated community isn’t quite as fired up about NRC’s recommendations as is Lisa Jackson. Many members of the regulated community recently commented most unfavorably about these proposals. Their comments are part of the USEPA docket  covering a proposal to start gathering information in anticipation of formulating new rules. Ironically, the regulated community offering damning comments in this case doesn’t consist of evil corporations, it’s rather made up of the organizations that are currently responsible for stormwater management which, like the EPA itself, are units of government. The question of whether one regulatory agency can regulate so much so as to offend fellow regulators has thus been answered in the affirmative. The National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies  (NAFSMA) commented on EPA’s proposed Information Collection Request (ICR) wondering, among other things, why EPA was abandoning the Phase 1 and Phase 2 stormwater management practices that have been put into place already. From NAFSMA’s comments, dated December 23, 2009:
“In addition to our comments on the specific elements of the ICR, NAFSMA must express its strong concern that EPA’s announced intention to promulgate a substantial change to the Phase I and Phase II stormwater program, based on this ICR, constitutes a breach of the current regulations and the program evaluation agreement reached through the Stormwater Phase II Federal Advisory Council Act (FACA) in which NAFSMA was an active and involved participant with three of our members involved throughout the process.”
That’s from an organization representing almost one hundred state and local stormwater management agencies, serving about 76 million people. Many comments in the docket from individual agencies themselves are similarly critical, of both the approach the EPA is taking and the manner in which it’s approaching the issue. I can’t recall the last time local environmental agencies were this critical of their federal counterpart. That ought to tell you something about what’s happening in Lisa Jackson’s EPA. Admittedly, I’ve never been a big fan of the EPA, but then I have to work them, so my perspective is a tad jaded. Still, while no friend of industry, the EPA has traditionally blunted most of the worst excesses that extreme environmental groups would otherwise foist on America. No longer. There’s little to distinguish between Greenpeace and Lisa Jackson’s EPA.
When pressed, you can usually get an honest, informed environmental advocate to admit that our air and water actually got cleaner under George W. Bush’s administration, as they have under every administration since Nixon’s. The problem they say, such as it is, is the Bush didn’t “go far enough.” That’s a political argument, not a scientific one, because no Republican president can ever “go far enough” to satisfy the environmental movement. Bush’s EPA promulgated regulations reducing mercury emissions from power plants on a massive scale. It wasn’t enough. Bush’s EPA faithfully followed George H.W. Bush’s wetlands restoration policies, such that we had many more wetlands when W left office than when he first took the oath of office.
It wasn’t enough. It’s never enough. Most veterans in the EPA understand the politics involved and take that kind of criticism with more than a few grains of salt. Lisa Jackson appears to have swallowed the most extreme environmental activist arguments whole and, mostly unnoticed by both the press and policy-makers, has unleashed a series of crippling initiatives that will do untold damage to the nation’s economy at a time we can least afford it.