‘Oversight’ is not a bad word

That government is best which governs polluters

The Express-News reported this week that the EPA is forcing local businesses to pick up the tab for a Superfund cleanup at a former Southside oil recycler. Although the businesses, including large retailers like Wal-Mart, federal and local governmental entities, and small mom-and-pop enterprises, took used oil to the now-defunct R&H Oil, they didn’t participate directly in the mismanagement that led to the site’s profound contamination. But, as an attorney involved in the case noted, the Superfund law is designed to recover remediation costs from any involved parties in proportion to their contribution.

The situation highlights the numerous weaknesses in our state and federal environmental laws. It’s understandable if the businesses the EPA is now looking to to pay for the $21 million cleanup feel cheated. R&H was registered with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, lending a (ahem) sheen of legitimacy to their business. Didn’t the businesses who sold R&H their used oil have the right to assume the business was legit?

Well, that depends on how much naiveté you’re willing to countenance. It’s been more than 20 years since the Reagan era first ushered in a new mantra of hands-off government. Since then, untold lobbyists and money have been expended in local and national efforts to convince legislators that business can best monitor business practices. Often the poster child for anti-governmental-oversight rhetoric is the small businessman or woman, who, we are told, is crushed by the onerous and expensive requirements of environmental and employment law. But it’s also pretty darn crushing to receive a surprise bill for $5,000 or more to remediate a Superfund site.

The daily news would be a lot lighter without the numerous stories of ways in which business failed to regulate itself (or even operate in its own long-term interest rather than for short-term gain; witness Enron). The R&H debacle is a tale of the failure of governmental oversight and, in the sense that we deserve the government we get, our failure. The best revenge for the numerous businesses on the hook for R&H’s transgressions would be to insist that the Texas legislature expand TCEQ’s authority and adequately fund its enforcement and oversight capabilities.

At the national level, California Senator Barbara Boxer is planning to introduce a bill asking Congress to reinstate the corporate environmental Superfund tax that expired in 1995. Despite a 2006 increase in monies for Superfund cleanups, the program now relies on annual discretionary appropriations. The GOP-controlled Hill is expected to let Boxer’s bill die or kill it outright.

Boxer is also worried that under the Bush administration, the EPA has become more secretive, in effect protecting polluters like W.R. Grace, the company responsible for Libby, Montana’s asbestos contamination and other sites (hanging you, me, and others without a Washington lobbying presence out to dry). A committed advocate for the Superfund program, she recently forced her fellow senators to hold their first oversight hearing on the program in four years. At the June 16 hearing, Boxer told fellow committee members that the bulk of material she requested about Superfund sites was marked “privileged,” which means that it can’t be made public. U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator Susan Bodine told the senators that the protected documents related only to funding and enforcement. But funding and enforcement documents are often just as important to the public as information on the contamination itself — as demonstrated in the R&H case.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama was also a vocal participant in the June 16 hearings. “If we don’t hold them accountable, I don’t know who does,” Obama told his fellow lawmakers. He was referring to the EPA, but he could just as well have been urging us to hold ourselves and local businesses accountable to the environment, and by extension, our communities. If we close our eyes and trust potential polluters to regulate themselves, sooner or later we all get the bill.

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