Derrick Z. Jackson

No more freebies at EPA

By Derrick Z. Jackson
March 24, 2009
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AFTER EIGHT years in which the EPA was the Environmental Pass Agency, new administrator Lisa Jackson last week sent a new signal that polluters cannot pass "Go." In a memorandum, she stopped the agency's nearly decade-old "Performance Track" program where corporations set voluntary environmental goals. It began late in the Clinton administration, on the notion that with "a growing number of environmental leaders in the public and private sectors practicing environmental stewardship, we hope more organizations and the people who run them will begin to see its advantages."

Corporations saw the "advantages" as an open chimney. In December, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an expose on the program, which grew in the Bush EPA to 547 members. The EPA signed up many of the nation's top polluters in a polluted public relations stunt. The companies said they were greening, even as the EPA made little or no effort to verify any progress. The Inquirer found that signatories could count on fewer inspections and expedited permits to expand.

In a memorandum, Jackson wrote to the Performance Track members that while they "have created a foundation of achievement, innovation, and progress," she was halting the program because it "was developed in a different era and may not speak to today's challenges." She elaborated in a telephone interview last week, "There's enough concerns about that program's effectiveness. My current belief is that it has raised awareness of stewardship. I can also say with some certainty that evidence of the effectiveness of Performance Track is not out there."

The degree to which Performance Track became Polluter Travesty is the fact that many of its members are in the 2008 Toxic 100 Index, as compiled by the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass-Amherst. DuPont and Dow are members despite being listed top and third in the nation, respectively, for their toxic releases into the air. In 2005 DuPont paid a $10.25 million fine and agreed to a $107 million settlement to people in Ohio and West Virginia for polluting drinking water.

The Inquirer found that a chlorine factory in Tennessee was a Performance Track member despite being the biggest mercury emitter in the state, with the state declaring the Hiwassee River abutted by the factory to be "impaired." The newspaper also found that Pfizer, also on the UMass institute's Toxic 100 list, is a Performance Track member despite having paid a nearly $1 million fine for hazardous chemical release and that Marathon Oil, in the Toxic 100 and a Performance Track member, received expedited permits in 2006 to expand its Louisiana refinery into the fourth largest in the nation.

Evidence of the coziness between the polluters and EPA is a series of 2006 testimonials on the Performance Track website. The environmental manager for Nucor Steel, a Toxic 100 member, wrote, "The best thing about Performance Track is that it's truly a partnership between business and EPA." A representative from Marathon Oil hailed the "collaborative relationship with our regulators." An environmental resource representative from DuPont wrote "Instead of reinventing the wheel, we can have a dialogue."

The whole point of the "dialogue" was so polluters did not have to reinvent anything. Jackson knew this, which is why she added Performance Track to the many Bush policies she is reversing or reviewing. The mere consideration by the Obama administration to regulate greenhouse gases has the US Chamber of Commerce screaming it would "completely shut the country down." Jackson said such fears are unfounded.

"We are not looking to run rampant and regulate every Dunkin' Donuts and every cow," Jackson said. "These are nightmare, worst-case scenarios put up by the Bush administration. We will move methodically as mandated by the Supreme Court. But the fact is, we don't have a very sound rationale on regulating mercury . . . there is quite a bit of uncertainty about how we regulate air pollutants. Decades after the Clean Air Act we're stalled on toxic waste sites. The Superfund pipeline has dried up . . . We've lost eight years on kids getting asthma."

Just to have an EPA administrator admit to all that gives hope that the days of the free pass are over.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at

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