This is a story about a farmer who thought he was doing the right thing. To prevent flooding from washing massive amounts of trees and dirt into the North Santiam River, Bill Case put rock along the banks. To make sure it was OK, he checked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Oregon Department of State Lands. Once they gave him the thumbs up he thought he was home free.
He was wrong. Now, 7 years later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has sued him. The EPA believes the rock Case placed along the river south of Salem in some way polluted it. Under the Clean Water Act, the agency argues he needs to either remove the rock or face the consequences, which could include fines of as much as $37,500 a day.
Either outcome would defy logic and deprive him of his property rights. Beyond that, it would perpetuate a system of enforcement that is patently unfair to anyone who comes into the EPA’s crosshairs.
First, let’s talk about the EPA. This agency has one of the most difficult jobs in the U.S. government. It must enforce not only the Clean Water Act and its poorly written regulations but other half-baked laws governing such things as dust. Most are one-size-fits-all, meaning that a farmer trying to prevent land from eroding into a river is treated the same as a manufacturing plant caught dumping industrial waste into a river.
Second, since the Corps of Engineers already checked off on the project, that should be sufficient. One would think that if the EPA needed to be involved the Corps official would have told the farmer and the EPA.
Third, the EPA has mutated into the junkyard dog of federal enforcement agencies. The way EPA attacks anyone for any alleged transgression is beyond reason. We are reminded of the regional EPA director in Texas who told a public meeting that the agency attacks alleged polluters with everything it’s got.
“It is kind of like how the Romans used to conquer villages in the Mediterranean — they’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere and they’d find the first five guys they saw and they’d crucify them,” the former regional director of the EPA said in 2010. “You find people who are not complying with the law and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them. There’s a deterrent effect there.”
Compared to the FBI, which sat on its haunches for 41 days while an armed group held an Oregon federal wildlife refuge, the EPA is storm troopers. We can only imagine what the EPA would have done if it were put in charge of that standoff.
We want the environment to be clean. We also know farming and ranching, when well-managed, is the highest human undertaking. It nurtures the environment and feeds the world at the same time.
That anyone would be punished as a polluter for placing some rock along a riverbank stretches credulity.
The EPA needs to back away from its aggressiveness and bring this bureaucracy-fueled nightmare to an equitable conclusion. Now.