Panel Is Last-Line of Defense for Communities Fighting Polluters
Republicans are trying to weaken a federal board that helps minority and low-income communities challenge how much pollution can be released in their neighborhoods by power plants and factories.
The Environmental Appeals Board would be stripped of its ability to hear appeals of EPA-issued pollution permits from citizens, states, cities and Native American tribes. Businesses that hold permits could still ask the board to allow them to increase how much pollution is released.
“These changes would allow polluters to better game the system to the detriment of public health and the environment,” said Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Former EPA administrator William Reilly created the board in 1992 under the first President Bush. The board has four environmental appeals judges and decided 578 permit appeals in the past 26 years. Fewer than 1% of the board decisions have been reversed by the courts.
“This is outrageous,” said Richard Lazarus, an environmental law professor at Harvard. “Individuals in communities will lose a way to seek relief from pollution that has historically been very effective. But industry will still be able to seek relief to pollute more.”
The big winner in this would be the oil and gas industry.
Recent decisions include a case brought by Emerson Addison, an unemployed English teacher in Michigan who filed an appeal with the board over plans by the Muskegon Development Co. to inject water in a defunct oil well to improve efforts to get oil from other wells.
The board found that the EPA failed to present any evidence of how it considered harm to low-income and minority people in writing the permit in Clare County, Mich.
In 2016, PEER won new restrictions on discharging fracking fluids into a stream on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The EPA hadn’t even required the oil fields to list what chemicals were being discharged.
Gutting the board’s power would undermine safeguards for poor or minority areas that suffer disproportionately from pollution. Under the plan, these low-income communities would be forced to file a federal lawsuit to protect themselves.
The proposal would also weaken clean air protections for parks, wilderness and other natural areas from nearby powerplants or other pollution, according to PEER.
“Gutting the Environmental Appeals Board is a classic example of foisting a fix on an institution that is not broken,” Whitehouse said.