Is EPA Moving Too Fast on Deregulation to Listen to Public?

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By David Schultz

The EPA is moving fast—maybe too fast—on identifying regulations to be revised or killed in response to a White House order, worrying environmentalists, state officials and even some in the private sector.

They say they are concerned the EPA is under too much pressure from the White House to target regulations for elimination and may not be doing an adequate job gathering input from the public to develop a sensible plan.

The agency is soliciting comments on regulations that should be reviewed for possible elimination through a series of listening sessions, though it’s unclear what exactly it will do with the comments it receives. After the Environmental Protection Agency’s public comment period ends, it will have less than two weeks to synthesize all of that feedback into a report due to the White House at the end of this month.

“EPA is providing multiple opportunities for comment throughout the process and are encouraging many avenues of participation,” agency spokesman Lincoln Ferguson told Bloomberg BNA. “We are giving a voice to many stakeholders across the country the previous administration chose to ignore.”

But some of those interests are now worried that the administration isn’t acknowledging the long, hard slog that its deregulatory agenda will entail. Leslie Sue Ritts, an attorney who runs the Ritts Law Group in Alexandria, Va., represents energy and manufacturing companies that are in favor of relaxing environmental rules.

She said the heavily accelerated deadlines the White House has set for this process have left her doubting the new administration’s true commitment to this issue.

“I’m glad they did something, but is it all window dressing?” Ritts told Bloomberg BNA. “I’m losing a little bit of wind in my sails.”

90 Days

At the behest of an executive order from the White House, all federal agencies, including the EPA, have assembled task forces to identify regulations that are candidates for “repeal, replacement or modification.” The March 1 order gave the task forces 90 days to assemble input from the public and then issue a report.

In addition to soliciting written comments, the EPA quickly scheduled eight listening sessions—some in person, some online only—where the public could offer their thoughts on which regulations should or shouldn’t be scrapped.

Not all of these sessions have been going smoothly. They’ve largely been scheduled during the middle of the day on weekdays, making it difficult for some members of the public who aren’t lobbyists to participate or attend. The May 2 online teleconference held by the agency’s Office of Water was plagued with technical problems, with many of the speakers’ voices rendered unintelligible for long stretches of the three-hour session.

“It was just painful,” Steve Via, head of federal relations with the American Water Works Association, a professional group for the water utility industry, told Bloomberg BNA.

And at a May 4 session held by the agency’s pesticides office, officials’ comments were met with boos from environmental activists in the audience.

To Squawk or Not

Via said his group is accustomed to having to scramble to meet tight agency comment deadlines but said the best way to get heard is to submit comments in writing, not participate in a public listening session.

But, in this instance, it’s unclear how even written comments can have an impact on the EPA’s thinking. The comment period for the task force’s upcoming deregulatory report ends May 15, while the report itself is due to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt by May 25, according to Ferguson.

Ritts, the industry attorney, said she can’t see how the task force can meet this deadline given that so many high level positions at the EPA remain vacant, including the heads of the agency’s offices that manage water, air, chemicals, waste and other issues.

“It’s better to get to squawk than to not get to squawk,” Ritts said, “but I need to know who I’m squawking at. Pruitt can’t do everything.”

100 Days

State environmental officials also are reeling at the breakneck speed the administration is moving at on its deregulatory push. Peg Bostwick, a policy analyst with the Association of State Wetlands Managers, said the White House’s desire to rack up accomplishments in its first 100 days has led to what she described as a “shotgun” process.

“EPA was under the gun, as was every federal agency, to get the ball rolling,” Bostwick told Bloomberg BNA. “I sympathize with them trying to figure out how to have a process that’s somewhat open.”

Julia Anastasio, executive director of the Association of Clean Water Administrators, said she hopes that, after the EPA identifies which regulations are good candidates for a roll back, it will slow down its process and really focus in on the details.

“We certainly are concerned with the speed,” she told Bloomberg BNA. “Take your time. Make sure it makes sense to repeal.”

—With assistance from Tiffany Stecker.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dSchultz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

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