Two se­na­tors riled by EPA pay­outs in en­vi­ron­men­tal law­suits

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DINAN

A new gov­ern­ment watch­dog re­port says en­vi­ron­men­tal lawyers have col­lected mil­lions of dol­lars in lawyers’ fees from tax­pay­ers by su­ing and winning cases against the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency.

But the re­port, by the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, also shows that busi­ness and in­dus­try law­suits ac­count for nearly half of EPA’s le­gal work­load, which is far more than the 30 per­cent of cases from en­vi­ron­men­tal and cit­i­zens groups.

And the two big­gest years for law­suits over the past decade and a half came in 1997 and 2010, when a Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tion ran the agency and busi­nesses clashed with it. En­vi­ron­men­tal groups, mean­while, did most of their su­ing dur­ing Pres­i­dent George W. Bush’s time in of­fice.

All told, the Jus­tice Depart­ment spent $43 mil­lion from 1995 to 2010 to de­fend it­self against law­suits, and spent mil­lions more to pay at­tor­ney fees, av­er­ag­ing nearly $1.7 mil­lion a year from 2006 to 2010.

The fee pay­ments are al­lowed by law, and are de­signed to com- pen­sate cit­i­zens who sue and beat the gov­ern­ment. GAO said pay­ments were made in about 11 per­cent of cases, and ranged from as lit­tle as $145 up to $720,000.

“The GAO re­port shows that tax­pay­ers have been on the hook for years while ‘big green’ trial lawyers have raked in mil- lions of dol­lars su­ing the gov­ern­ment,” said Sen. David Vit­ter, a Louisiana Repub­li­can who re­quested the re­port along with Sen. James M. In­hofe, Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can “Even worse, be­cause of sloppy record­keep­ing by the EPA and other agen­cies and a lack of co­op­er­a­tion by the Jus­tice Depart­ment, we’re not even sure how bad the prob­lem re­ally is. This is un­ac­cept­able and I’m go­ing to con­tinue work­ing to de­mand greater trans­parency.”

Earthjus­tice, a non­profit law firm that spe­cial­izes in en­vi­ron­men­tal cases, re­ceived more than $4.6 mil­lion in at­tor­ney fees dur­ing the per iod GAO ex­am­ined, 32 per­cent of the to­tal. The Sierra Club and Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil ac­counted for an­other 9 per­cent.

But Patti Gold­man, vice pres­i­dent for lit­i­ga­tion at Earthjus­tice, said their law­suits force the gov­ern­ment to fol­low its own laws, and she said that’s saved thou­sands of lives through cleaner wa­ter and air.

She said the real driver of EPA’s le­gal caseload is busi­nesses.

“In­dus­try sues EPA far more than en­vi­ron­men­tal groups,” she said. “What we have go­ing on here is there’s re­ally an in­dus­try at­tack on EPA, and politi­cians like Sens. In­hofe and Vit­ter are help­ing lead the charge po­lit­i­cally on the Hill.”

GAO said EPA of­fi­cials did not com­ment on a draft of the re­port that was sub­mit­ted to them, and a spokes­woman did not com­ment on Aug. 31.

Mr. In­hofe, the rank­ing Repub­li­can on the En­vi­ron­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee, said the costs iden­ti­fied by GAO are “the tip of the ice­berg.”

He said the agency was un­able to find out how much time EPA lawyers spend on these cases in­de­pen­dently of the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

GAO said there was no dis­cernible pat­tern for the law­suits, but that those they in­ter­viewed for their in­ves­ti­ga­tion said a change in ad­min­is­tra­tion or the re­lease of an important new reg­u­la­tion could spur chal­lenges.

And one en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion told GAO that plain­tiffs are in­creas­ingly turn­ing to law­suits as a way to test whether laws should be ap­plied to new sit­u­a­tions that were not en­vi­sioned when the leg­is­la­tion passed Congress, in some cases decades ago.

“For ex­am­ple, par­ties dis­agree over whether the Clean Air Act should be used to reg­u­late green­house gases, such as car­bon diox­ide, meth­ane, and ni­trous ox­ide, sub­stances that some stake­hold­ers say the act was not originally de­signed to reg­u­late,” GAO ex­plained.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sen. David Vit­ter, Louisiana Repub­li­can, says tax­pay­ers are on the hook for hefty fees paid to en­vi­ron­men­tal lawyers who sue the fed­eral gov­ern­ment for com­pli­ance.

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