The unpopular EPA: the rhetoric and the reality (w/AUDIO)

UPDATED, 4:26 p.m., with an audio link to our interview with Simpson.

Rep. Mike Simpson once said the Environmental Protection Agency is the scariest federal bureaucracy of them all — surpassing even the IRS.

Simpson now says, somewhat grudgingly, that the statement was “inappropriate.” But he doesn’t back away from his criticism of the EPA, nor his attempts to slash the agency’s budget.

The EPA has become a red meat talking point for Republicans on the campaign trail. But the criticisms are a bit hazy — and the reality considerably more complex.

When Simpson met with the Statesman editorial board last month, we interviewed him at length about the EPA. I gave his staff the heads up beforehand. Since Simpson is the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the EPA, he’s on the front line of the budget debate. So I wanted Simpson to explain his concerns with EPA.

It’s a sketchy case, I must say.

Simpson hears from business executives who fear the EPA’s ability to levy fines and impose regulations. But he offered no specifics, no referrals. “Most of these companies don’t want to be mentioned, because they’re afraid of the EPA.”

Simpson also criticizes the EPA’s rulemaking, saying one mercury pollution rule will effectively shut down one-sixth of the nation’s 360 coal-fired plants. Are all of the EPA’s new rules excessive? “I’m sure there are rules we should implement,” he said. “I can’t sit here and tell you which ones they are.”

One of Simpson’s biggest fears is an unprovable — the notion that, if President Barack Obama is re-elected, an unfettered EPA would push an even more aggressive agenda on issues such as greenhouse gases. “(That) scares the heck out of me.”

Considering Simpson’s considerable sway over this agency — in June, his appropriations subcommittee pushed for a $1.4 billion cut in EPA’s budget — I wanted to hear more detail. I get that Simpson believes that EPA received excessive budget increases and economic stimulus dollars early in Obama’s term, and that, with Congress looking to cut budgets, the agencies that received big increases are going to absorb deeper cuts.

But does that make for an out-of-control agency?

Simpson’s Democratic opponent, Boise state Sen. Nicole LeFavour, takes a decidedly different view. She too has heard frustrations about the EPA. But she also believes the feds have provided a backstop, as the state has cut it own environmental monitoring budgets. She also maintains that agencies such as the EPA provide good jobs that support small businesses and the economy. “I don’t think we can cut our way out of this budget crisis.”

And despite the soundbite image of EPA as a heavy-handed monolith, the on-the-ground reality isn’t always so simple.

Boise City Hall has worked with the EPA on a novel approach to mitigate phosphorus emissions from its West Boise wastewater plant — allowing the city slightly higher plant emissions in exchange for more aggressive cleanup downstream, near the confluence of the Boise and Snake rivers. A draft permit could be issued shortly. Mayor Dave Bieter credits Simpson with helping on the idea, and EPA officials for coming around. “It’s taken some time, but they’ve been receptive to the idea.”

Even Simpson concedes an irony: a big EPA budget item is noncontroversial, “fairly popular” on Capitol Hill, and woefully inadequate. A state revolving loan fund, accounting for about $2.4 billion of this year’s $8.4 billion agency budget, helps local governments finance water and sewer plants. However, says Simpson, this national backlog totals a staggering $700 billion.

This helps explain why, in our interview, Simpson repeatedly distanced himself from congressional colleagues, and constituents, who want the EPA dismantled.

And Simpson even presents himself as something of a restraining force, saying he has used his chairman’s position to block some amendments to hamstring the EPA. One was an appropriations bill amendment to stop the agency from using unmanned drones; Simpson said he looked into the matter, and determined that the drones were a cheaper way to monitor wildfire, wildlife habitat and look for illegal diversions of water.

So, no, Simpson isn’t an absolutist. “I’m one who actually believes we need an EPA, and we need an active EPA.”

Somehow, and unfortunately, that message gets drowned out in all the anti-EPA fervor.

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EPA - Environmental Protection Authority

... I say the name should be changed to reflect how most average people view the EPA --- it has become authoritarian, top-heavy and, yes, heavy-handed. Simpson is a wise man who understands the need to protect public health and the environment with good science, sensible political approaches, and sometimes with a carrot and a stick.

There is a rampant anti-EPA fervor but in most cases it is absolutely warranted. EPA is rightfully criticized harshly for its one-sided positions that should have been better vetted and which should have been more inclusive to listen to opposing viewpoints, and yes -- sometimes, opposing science. Simpson is right - for all the good EPA can do with state revolving loan funds to support infrastructure improvements and enhancements; it continues to shoot itself in the foot whenever industry objects to its heavy-handed approach and its hard-stick enforcement tactics or government threatens to take the money and run.

Wingnut Rhetoric

Many average people in Idaho may hold disdain for the EPA, but most of this country appreciates the EPA. Simpson could care less about clean water and air, or the environment in general. Simpson is looking for political contributions and that is his primary concern. The EPA is just trying to keep corporate greed from putting the almighty dollar ahead of clean air and water. Its a lot less expensive to just dump pollutants into the air or streams than clean it up first.

The "rampant anti-EPA fervor" is really only rampant on right wing entertainment (not news) sources that spew fear-based rhetoric. EPA's policy reflects sound science that include many different viewpoints, not the politics of Simpson and his political contributers. Without the EPA, our water and air would be heavily polluted. The EPA uses our tax dollars wisely. The EPA prevents the type of pollution that was once created by greedy corporations who left their mess for the taxpayers to clean up. Even our own government's actions created Superfund sites such as Hanford. The EPA saves taxpayer's money as Superfund sites are very expensive to clean up. The EPA keeps this sort of environmental devastation from occuring ever again. Without the EPA, our country would go further into debt due to newly created environmental disasters at the hands of those who value the dollar over long term enviromental health. Our long term economy depends on a healthy enviroment. That is especially true in Idaho where we have amazing outdoor recreation, hunting, and fishing resources.

Thank you, goodword, for

Thank you, goodword, for conveying a true picture of the need for EPA.

Those opposing EPA's mandatory mission only display their red neck rhetoric.

Nicole says

She also maintains that agencies such as the EPA provide good jobs...


That is the epitome of liberal krap.

Good jobs for lawyers.

Good jobs for lawyers.

missed the target

KR, Given the topic of this, EPA, I am surprised you missed the real EPA story of recent days.

But I'm not throwing ya a bone.

But look at the title here- rhetoric and reality.
From the post I can't see what falls under rhetoric and and what falls under realtiy.

Who needs

Who needs breathable air and drinkable water? Certainly not Idahoans. We want minimum wage ideology and we want it now.

"...the EPA provides good jobs..."

Thanks Nicole, that phrase speaks volumes about you and your "Big Government" philosophy.

EPA Saves Lives

Have any of the anti EPA folks out there ever stopped to consider the reduction of morbidity and mortality EPA regulations have accomplished? Or the amount of money we have saved? Every year EPA regulations reduce environmental pollution related deaths, hospitalizations, loss of work days, doctor and hospital visits. Criteria air pollutants (ground lever ozone, particulates, CO, NOx and lead), toxic and carcinogenic pollutants can and do cause death and illness. Add to that the same sorts of issues regarding ground and surface water and the improper disposal of hazardous materials and you get millions of lives saved, illnesses and cancers avoided as well as billions of dollars saved from cleaning up messes not made, pollution not emitted, water not contaminated and work not missed over the years since EPA was started.

And one more thing. EPA does in fact provide good and useful even critical work for people. Protecting the public health is not something we can leave to markets. It is a necessary and proper function of the government. We do not need to reduce the EPA in size or scope but rather we need to make sure EPA has the ability and independence from politics to do its job and protect the public health