Monday, February 10, 2020

Wins for Sewage

My GEOG 431 course -- Environmental Regulations -- will be a bit complicated when I teach it in the fall 2020, but I'm determined to do my best. The gap between hard-won environmental laws and their responsible enforcement is growing.

Congress passes laws, presidents sign them, and then executive departments implement the laws through regulations. I teach a course that helps future environmental professionals (and citizens who simply want to know how their government works) navigate the complexities of those regulations. We explore what happens when people find the enforcement either too strict or too lax -- this is where courts get involved.

But the current approach to "implementing" established environmental law is to operate the enforcing agencies in such a way as to essentially shred the original laws. The changes are so widespread and rapid as to preclude meaningful appeal to the courts, and courts are being unraveled at the same time.

The result? Those who favor dumping more raw sewage into rivers are winning. And YES, some agencies -- and elected officials -- really prefer more sewage in the water if it makes their budgets easier to balance. And oddly, it always does, because sewage flows downhill.
A new tunnel to store raw sewage below Congress and the White House.
Photo: Ting Shen for NY Times.
In my reading of the history of municipal sewage systems (yes, I have a glamorous job), it turns out that local officials will almost always favor sending more sewage to the next town. Even when the Federal government pays 90 percent of the cost of treatment, many officials will resist spending the remaining 10 percent. This is why Federal regulations are needed, why deregulation zealots should be kept away from our public water supplies.

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