It may be unsettling to some that the man most responsible for overseeing coal ash regulation within the Obama administration has a track record of siding with polluters instead of the people most affected by toxic waste.
His name is Cass Sunstein and he serves as the little known, yet powerful administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs - aka Obama's "regulatory czar." A long-time friend of the president, Sunstein's law and academic career, which include stints at Harvard and University of Chicago, has focused largely on regulatory policy and behavioral economics. Sunstein, who has written extensively on such matters, has challenged workplace safety laws and even the constitutionality of the Clean Air Act. One might wonder how such a bureaucrat found his way into the Obama administration. However, for those that have kept a watchful eye on Sunstein, they are not surprised by his latest actions that are holding up the regulation of toxic coal waste.
It's not the first time the law professor has dabbled in science. As Sunstein wrote in his 2002 book "Risk and Reason," "it remains unproven that the contamination of Love Canal ever posed significant risks to anyone." Sunstein holds this belief despite the fact that the EPA claims that even 25 years after the Hooker Chemical Company stopped using the Love Canal for an industrial dump, "82 different compounds, 11 of them suspected carcinogens, have been percolating upward through the soil, their drum containers rotting and leaching their contents into the backyards and basements of 100 homes and a public school built on the banks of the canal."
In fact, Sunstein even went as far as to state that the American public had overreacted to Bush's unpopular decision to suspend the arsenic rule issued during the Clinton years.
"If a Republican nominee had these views, the environmental community would be screaming for his scalp," Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group, said in an interview prior to Sunstein's nomination hearing.
His scalp remains intact, but the same cannot be said for the future prospect of coal waste regulation. Each year coal-fired power plants in the US produce almost 140 million tons of scrubber sludge and coal waste, as well as additional combustion waste from the burning of the fossil fuel. This coal ash, which contains numerous toxins like arsenic and lead, is contaminating groundwater, drinking supplies and wetlands in dozens of states.
But like Love Canal, Sunstein seems to believe that coal ash isn't toxic. On March 15, a new site called AshSunstein.com, accused the regulatory czar (dubbed Cass "Ash" Sunstein by the site) of using a "Bush Administration-style bureaucratic maneuver to block common-sense protections against Toxic Coal Ash - leaving our air and water at the mercy of these poisonous chemicals."
Sunstein is certainly a ripe target. Back in October, Lisa Jackson of the EPA submitted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for coal ash to Sunstein's office. The review must be acted on within 90 days, with a one-time, 30-day extension available. However, as of March 16, the White House has refused to act on Jackson's initiative. The clock is ticking.
Since October, Sunstein's office has met with coal industry representatives and lobbyists more than 20 times in closed-door sessions. The New York Time's editorial board even accused Sunstein of stalling the process to get coal ash regulated:
"This debate is being conducted behind closed doors, mainly at the Office of Management and Budget, where industry usually takes its complaints and horror stories," wrote The Times. "A better course would be to let the EPA draft a proposal, get it out in the open and offer it for comment from all sides. The Obama administration promised that transparency and good science would govern decisions like these."
During a recent talk at the Brookings Institute on March 10, Sunstein faced criticism for abandoning the open-door, transparent policy the Obama administration has allegedly embraced. After being questioned by an audience member for refusing to allow the talks about coal ash to be open to the public, Sunstein replied, "The question suggests the limits of openness," and went on to argue why his office was justified in their embracing a secret process, citing national security as a reason to abandon the democratic process. The video of the exchange can be viewed here.
The coal industry has been fighting regulation for fear that it will raise their operating costs by imposing stricter disposal methods on waste that is generated from coal-fired power plants. At the same time, the EPA reports that coal ash is polluting groundwater supplies and threatening public and environmental health in dozens of locations across the country.
As it looks now, President Obama's White House is refusing to allow the EPA to put a little sound science back into our nation's failing environmental laws.
"Science must be the backbone of what EPA does," the EPA administrator Jackson told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 2009. "[Environmental laws] were meant to address not only the issues of today, but the issues of tomorrow."