The EPA’s scandalous December

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The Environmental Protection Agency has been very, very naughty this Christmas.

Lucky for the rogue agency, an especially boisterous December news cycle kept the EPA’s prolific misbehavior off the front pages. Nonetheless, the month saw several unrelated developments all involving unethical—and sometimes, possibly illegal—behavior at the EPA. 

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The first bombshell emerged on December 14, as the Government Accountability Office issued a report finding that the EPA had violated federal law by conducting a “covert propaganda” campaign in support of the Clean Water Rule.

Some background: In the spring of 2014, the EPA sought to “clarify” which waterways are subject to federal jurisdiction. No surprise, the EPA suddenly discovered it should have newfound control over millions of acres of private property. 

This power-grab met immediate opposition from diverse corners, including homebuilders, family farmers, manufacturers and even golf courses, which feared an onslaught of permitting requirements, inspections and other hassles. By the summer of 2015, a whopping 27 states had decided to sue the EPA over the Clean Water Rule. 

With such throaty protest doubtless in mind, the EPA launched an aggressive social-media campaign, using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and even Thunderclap to promote the Clean Water Rule. In doing so, the GAO concluded, it had attempted to covertly influence public opinion, also using taxpayer dollars in a lobbying effort—even though federal law forbids agencies from engaging in such activity.  

But that’s just one instance of the EPA’s questionable activity. 

Another scandal has been brewing at the agency since August, when an EPA cleanup crew botched a job at Colorado’s Gold King mine, unleashing millions gallons of chemical-tainted water into the Animas River, causing it to turn bright yellow. 

Already, a report by the Department of Interior suggests the EPA lied about its role in the disaster. The EPA initially claimed the blowout was “likely inevitable” – but  ederal investigators reported in October that the agency knew beforehand about the risks of a mine cleanup and chose to rush forward anyway, ignoring recommended precautions. 

Then, on Dec. 18, the House Committee on Natural Resources wrote a letter highlighting how “three EPA employees with close ties to the agency’s public response to the Gold King Mine spill” had interviewed key witnesses in early December, several weeks before the Inspector General planned to issue a report on the disaster. 

The EPA used those interviews with key witnesses to issue an addendum document that it said could help “clarify any misunderstandings about the incident.” 

The Committee did not appreciate such a story-spinning intrusion from the EPA. “Specifically,” the letter says, “the Committee is concerned the EPA’s interview did not follow best investigative practices and may have interfered with the OIG’s ongoing investigation.” 

The EPA’s problems keep piling up, too. Just a day after the Committee’s letter—and still just one week after the GAO issued its unrelated report on EPA’s legal shortcomings-- the Wall Street Journal editorial page broke news of fresh EPA emails obtained by ninja public-records lawyer Chris Horner. 

The most shocking discovery in the batch: Regulators and green lobbyists secretly worked together to write regulations specifically intended to drive coal-fired power plants out of business. An EPA official—who, incidentally, had once worked as lawyer for green groups—sought feedback on regulatory drafts from environmental groups, using his private email account for the exchange and never docketing the conversation. 

As the Journal noted, this sneak partnership on regulation raises serious questions about whether the EPA violated both the Administrative Procedures Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act, both of which govern collaboration between federal agencies and private special-interest groups. 

Add it to the list. 

There’s a bitter irony in the EPA’s eyebrow-raising actions, given how hell-bent it has been on strangling everyone else in red tape. As of last summer, the EPA had issued a mind-blowing 3,373 new regulations under the Obama administration, codifying them in a staggering 29,770 pages of new policies. 

(That’s the equivalent of reading Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight more than 54 times. The jury’s still out on which is the more unpleasant experience.) 

At the overzealous EPA, the rules apparently don’t apply. Taken together, the EPA’s December highlight reel shows an agency operating with wanton disregard for ethics, best practices, and even the law.

Melchior is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. 

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