Red Tape, Regulations, and Environmental Crimes
January 26, 2009 by
Filed under Air Quality, Blog, Consultants, Ecopreneurs, EMS, Engineers, Environment, Environmental Management, EPA, Front Page, Hazardous Waste, Laws, Pollution, Regulations, Sustainability, U.S.
“When I went to Ireland recently,” says environmental auditor and consultant Molly Long, “I sat in a pub with a pint of Guinness while being lectured to by an average citizen of Dublin about what environmental terrorists we Americans are. He didn’t know we were environmental consultants. It was a really interesting perspective. He said we do a terrible job of protecting the environment.”
Long is a former hazardous waste inspector for the state of Indiana. Today she is in high demand as an ISO 14001 auditor and an environmental consultant, two services she provides through A.W.E. [Agriculture. Wildlife. Environmental.] Consulting, Inc. As an enforcer of laws, an environmental auditor, and a consultant, Long has worked extensively with a wide variety of businesses, industries, and government groups. In this interview, she brings broad perspective to the topic of environmental laws and regulations.
We interviewed Long from her office in Michigan City, Indiana. What follows is the first of a three-part interview.
BPGL: What was your response to the criticism that businesses in the U.S. are environmental terrorists?
LONG: I wanted to listen, to hear what that take was. I didn’t want to pollute it with my own opinion. It was an eye opener. They thought our environmental laws were weak and shabby and didn’t do a good job of protecting the environment. And when I think back on it, they’re right. Our environmental laws have not done a good job of protecting the environment. But they’ve done a great job of confusing everybody.
Businesses constantly struggle to consistently comply with the laws and regulations – forget about trying to improve the environment. Our environmental laws are so complicated, we can’t really even tell if they are effective or not at protecting the environment.
BPGL: Are you talking about red tape?
LONG: Yes. Red tape is one of the biggest environmental tragedies we have. Having been an enforcer of laws and regulations, I can tell you that red tape is probably 90 percent of the problem. People can’t dig through it, and they can’t put proper resources toward physically protecting the environment because they are too worried about what kind of records they need to keep. Besides creating a red tape nightmare that kills more trees than it saves, we have actually weakened true environmental protection through our environmental laws because they are designed to manage a lowest common denominator for environmental protection that applies across a broad spectrum of regulated businesses. This results in some industries being under regulated and others being regulated out of business, or choosing to go somewhere else.
If you want to look at the causes of economic collapse, one of them is losing our industrial base. There is no country that can become strong and have a good, sound economy without an industrial base. For example, the steel companies are heavily regulated and cause a lot of pollution, but we need the goods that they make. We should be working closely with them to make sure we are regulating the right things environmentally and still allowing them to operate in a sustainable way. The very environmental laws that govern us are part of our problem.
BPGL: More of a problem than causing endless paperwork and confusion?
LONG: Yes, because often we aren’t regulating the right things, things that can have major environmental impacts. Remember the coal ash incident that happened recently in the Tennessee Valley? Coal ash is not regulated. We’ve taught all industry and business to focus only on those things that they can get in trouble for, not on those things that they should be taking care of for the simple reason that they’re bad for the environment. Just like with any other legislation, lobbyists and influence groups all come into play in the making of environmental laws. When I was a regulator, we had a saying: “Regulate by the part per billion and exempt by the ton.” Coal ash is one of those things that gets exempted by the ton.
We were raking mom and pop organization over the coals for miniscule amounts of pollution, (and sometimes putting them out of business) while the big guys could dump literally tons of polluting substances because the material was exempted from environmental regulation. It was exempted because the big guys had the big bucks to pay for lobbyists to get them the regulations they wanted. Meanwhile, the big guys are allowed to dump tons and tons and tons of this stuff, because it’s not regulated. What that means is, some lobbyist got in there and got what they wanted. The problem with laws and regulations is that they are subject to that very kind of influence. On one hand that sounds evil, but on the other hand, you can’t blame industry, because they are trying to find a way to operate and stay in this country.
Another confusing issue is that laws and regulations covering industry are not as strict in some parts of the country. Let’s say you’re in Alabama and you really want to bring industry down there. It’s the hot spot right now — all the South is the hot spot for industry. They’re giving every incentive they can think of to get industry to come down there. And let me tell you, the laws and regulations in Alabama are not the same as they are in Maine, or California, or Iowa, or Chicago. They’re going to do what they can to get the business down there.
BPGL: Does that mean they’re going to weaken their restrictions in the South? How can they do that?
LONG: The rules are set up to where the EPA is the federal baseline, and you can’t be weaker than the federal baseline. But the federal baselines are trying to cover 50 different states and the U.S. protectorates, as well, so we have lots of different scenarios, and the [federal] rules are going to be very broad and general.
States are authorized to run their own EPA programs, and they’re expected to make more stringent regulations based on the more specific environments in the state. There are lots of different contexts for the type of environment that needs protecting. Think of a business that operates in the middle of the desert versus a business right next to a wetland versus a business in the middle of a forest versus a business in the middle of a neighborhood.
BPGL: What are some examples of those different contexts?
LONG: I’ve seen some steel mills that are in the middle of a major city, and I’ve seen others that are out in the middle of nowhere. They have very different environmental concerns. The one steel mill that’s in the middle of the city is basically in a funnel, surrounded by multi-million dollar homes. They are scrutinized by the community every second of the every day, and people are concerned about their property value in addition to the environment. At this mill, everything it has is under cover. Their scrap yards are covered, so they can minimize noise and dust. And they have certain loading procedures for their ladles so that they don’t make noise.
But something that’s out in the middle of nowhere, and nobody’s around to hear or see, that’s a whole different story. Another steel mill has no human neighbors, but is very committed to protecting thousands of acres of forest nearby. It’s all about context. There’s no regulation or set of regulations that can cover every situation in a way that’s right for everyone. Instead of issuing laws based on theoretical science and the interests of lobbyists, regulators should be working closely with industry to determine solutions for environmental protection that are tailored to the business and the environmental context it operates in.
BPGL: With so many different contexts, how well do the regulations work?
LONG: One of the biggest problems we have in this country is that we’re piling all these regulations on different industries, and the regulations are made by people who don’t necessarily understand how things work on the level that they’re regulating. In other words, somebody is making regulations for a steel company who has never worked in a steel company. They don’t know how it functions, and that’s a problem because they can’t make the regulations match very closely to what needs to be done.
We’ve already got hundreds of thousands, if not millions and more, different regulations, and it varies from state to state, sometimes from city to city, sometimes from one area of a city to another area of the city, depending on the size of the city. We’re regulating all these fine distinctions, especially when it comes to something like air. We have all these complicated air regulations. But at the end of the day, you can’t subdivide air. You can’t say, This portion of air is clean, and this portion right next to it is not clean. It just doesn’t work that way. As my father says, that’s like having a no peeing section in a swimming pool.
BPGL: That brings me to a comment we heard from a family in Iowa. Their pool service company said that the acidity of their swimming pool had changed in the last few years because of the increasing number of coal plants in China.
LONG: Exactly. Weather patterns are worldwide. Air is certainly affected by weather, and weather is affected by air. What we do here is affecting what happens over there, and vice versa. We can’t just say, “You make your air as clean as possible, and everything will be okay.”
We end up pushing a lot of our problems away instead of dealing with them. We say, “Well, we just won’t have this industry here next to us, because it will be bad,” instead of working together to find a solution that is sustainable for everybody. It’s not sustainable if you’re putting all the nasties somewhere else. Then you’ve just made a problem for somebody else, and you’ve greatly increased inefficiency, greatly increased cost, greatly increased all the problems that go with it.
Another big problem with environmental regulation in this country is that it sets a very adversarial tone between industry and government. It sets up a fear among business owners: I could go to jail if I do this wrong! That’s the way our justice system works, but it doesn’t stop the bad guys from doing wrong – it just makes the average law-abiding citizen scared and confused. Then to top it off, the EPA does not offer any assistance or even a consistent interpretation of their laws. This causes many people to accidentally violate laws simply because of ignorance of them or misunderstanding the law’s intent.
That certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t people who don’t willfully violate environmental laws. When I was an inspector, there were people who were sent to jail through my inspections, and they deserved it. There were some really bad actors.
BPGL: Give an example of an environmental crime that got someone sent to jail.
LONG: An electroplater was going out of business and was dumping all his chemicals down the drain to the city. The city traced it back, shut off his sewer access, and called the state to investigate. By the time I got there, he was trying to sell his wastes and extra chemicals and trying to leave the state, possibly the country. In his parking lot, he was burning what he couldn’t sell. We also found out he had made a deal with the city to sell his polluted property (they didn’t know) to use for a children’s activity center. Based on my investigation and those of other state and federal agencies, he went to the federal pen.
Another company was picking up people’s waste and claiming to properly dispose of it. But it turned out they were dumping it in various fields around the county. We went to their residence to investigate and discovered a shed full of bulging drums of unknown material, which led to a big clean-up operation. These people also went to prison.
But that isn’t really the end goal — that only upon threat of death or going to jail that you should do something. You should do things because it makes sense to you and for the community, and because it helps your business. That’s the way a business has to work or it can’t succeed. A country where businesses can’t succeed is not going to have a strong economy, and countries with bad economies can’t do a good job of protecting the environment.
Part 1: Red Tape, Regulations, and Environmental Crimes (Top of Page)
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