For those of us in industry who have watched the agency grow in power and arrogance over the decades, there wasn’t anything all that surprising about somebody suggesting that the EPA uses threats and intimidation against the regulated community. We all know, from long and bitter experience, that’s how the EPA works. What was remarkable is that it was an EPA official admitting it.
Al Armendariz, EPA Region 6 administrator, was caught on tape urging the troops attending a 2010 meeting to be ruthless in their dogged pursuit of dirty rotten polluters (aka: anybody in the private sector). “You make examples out of people who are in this case not complying with the law … and you hit them as hard as you can,” he said. But it was the spectacularly inappropriate analogy Almenadariz utilized to underline the point that really caught the public’s attention:
“It was kind of like how the Romans used to, you know, conquer villages in the Mediterranean,” he said. “They’d go in to a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw, and they’d crucify them. And then, you know, that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.”
Yet, as spectacularly inappropriate as that analogy was, it was also dead-on accurate. When the EPA undertakes an enforcement initiative against one industry sector or another, it goes for the jugular. We’ve seen it time and time again. The initial “crucifixions” take the form of crushing fines against a handful of supposed bad actors, which serves to send a singular message to the rest of the companies in a particular industry sector: resistance is futile. It doesn’t matter whether the administration in power is Republican or Democrat. It’s an EPA thing. Congress has handed the EPA a tremendous amount of power over the years and the Agency isn’t at all shy about wielding it.
Consider the Clean Air Act, for example. Under the Clean Air Act the EPA has the authority to levy fines of up to $25,000 per day for each violation. Those violations don’t have to (and frequently don’t) have anything to do with emitting more pollutants into the air than are allowed by applicable regulations. If the EPA finds that a company didn’t file the right paperwork at the right time, or failed to keep a required record in exactly the right form, or committed a host of other environmental sins that don’t have anything to do with protecting the environment, they can wield their $25,000 per day per violation cudgel to get what they want. And what they want is revenue, both as an end for its own sake, and as a tangible means to “prove” to enviro-activists and Congress that they are doing their job. As I detailed in my book Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA is Ruining American Industry, the more complex regulations become, the more opportunity the EPA has to pick meaningless nits and jack up enforcement revenue.
It’s all about the price point, as is the case with any protection racket. If the target is a big corporation, you have to load up a lot of alleged violations such that the possible penalty is huge, and then hit them with a settlement offer that makes just a little more fiscal sense than the company deciding to lawyer-up.
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