Carlton Waterhouse (Photo by Seth Wenig/AP)
A husband and wife civil rights lawyer and environmental activist are on the front line of one of the largest lawsuits to challenge the EPA’s authority to impose regulations on the U.S. economy. For decades, the EPA has been used to protect health and safety, administer and regulate environmental policy. But in the Trump administration’s apparent attempt to overhaul the agency, a judge in Sacramento has intervened and ordered that its proposed regulations on manufacturing and oil and gas drilling be returned to the EPA, which must address the agency’s “unlawful unconstitutional actions.”
The EPA had sought to ban old, discarded toxic wastewater from being drained from oil and gas drilling platforms – the system used at more than 90 percent of oil and gas drilling operations in the U.S. The final rule, known as the “oil and gas wastewater treatment rule,” would reduce contaminant levels in American soil and water. In Kentucky, where 24 million gallons of oil and gas wastewater are left untreated daily, it could save the Commonwealth about $60 million a year.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has said the proposed rule could threaten U.S. energy security, delayed the final rule in February and launched a public comment period. An environmental justice group called the Black Alliance for Clean Energy says the EPA did so to obstruct progress.
Glen Murray, president of the Southern Environmental Law Center and one of the lead lawyers working the case, said in a statement that “African-American communities have disproportionately borne the impacts of the oil and gas industry throughout the country.” He added, “Though the polluter pays logic has proven to be short-sighted and today, for the second time this year, the attorney general of Texas is forcing the EPA to reverse course on many of its environmental protections.”
Murray, who is a Columbia Law School and Princeton University graduate, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, where drinking water had been contaminated by a coal ash plant. The principal and a few staff at Murray High School suffered chronic health issues. In 2015, during the federal rule-making process, Murray, then the speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, launched a campaign to find out about fracking in his district.
The data that emerged – and Murray had specific questions about fracking – spurred the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Southern Environmental Law Center and Dr. Geoffrey Supran, president of The Natural Resources Defense Council to sue the EPA. The EPA took issue with EPA investigation of Murray’s claims about groundwater contamination, which Supran says are supported by science, and sided with Murray. The EPA’s legal opinion said that because all wells had met EPA standards, Murray’s claims were unfounded. The EPA’s official position at the time was that Murray’s analysis was flawed.
A federal judge appointed Judge Harry Pregerson to listen to arguments regarding the EPA’s validity in the case.
“I’ll admit right up front that I am a raging racist, in that whenever I get elected to any position in public office and the candidate is black, the man is going to be sunk so low that all the services will be stacked against him,” Judge Pregerson said at one point during the process. He added, “I have an assumption I’ve had since I was nine years old.”
Pregerson ruled that the EPA must restore its original rule to the agency. And in May, Pruitt committed to bring the rule to life.
“This is a heartwarming story. And I am thankful that we have an agency like the Environmental Protection Agency that actually lives up to the mission of protecting the public’s health and the public’s water quality,” Murray said, welcoming the agency’s reversal.
Murray and Supran won a win for environmental justice when a judge banned a Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet landfill from dumping ground-up fill in a poor black neighborhood in Louisville. Murray said in a statement that the landfill’s presence threatened public health because pollutants would migrate to affected homes.
McCaskill says she thinks Pruitt is trying to harm the EPA, alleging that Trump and Pruitt are going after the agency to curb any major regulations.
Pruitt issued a statement that he does not target people based on race or color.
“The agency and its directors work every day to protect the health and safety of all Americans, regardless of their race, creed, race, sex, national origin, religion, or sexual orientation or orientation. We look forward to continuing this work and will file an appeal on the heels of the court’s initial ruling. We are confident that this will be resolved successfully on appeal,” he said.
• Dr. Carl Ernst is an environmental attorney and a political scientist