Power grab: EPA claims author­ity to dock checks

Ac­cused vi­o­la­tors of pol­lu­tion laws would have lit­tle re­course

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY S.A. MILLER

The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency has qui­etly floated a rule claim­ing author­ity to by­pass the courts and uni­lat­er­ally gar­nish pay­checks of those ac­cused of vi­o­lat­ing its rules, a power cur­rently used by agencies such as the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice.

The EPA has been flex­ing its reg­u­la­tory mus­cle un­der Pres­i­dent Obama, col­lect­ing more fines each year and hit­ting in­di­vid­u­als with costly penal­ties for vi­o­lat­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal rules, in­clud­ing re­cently slap­ping a $75,000 fine on Wy­oming home­owner Andy John­son for build­ing a pond on his ru­ral property.

“The EPA has a his­tory of over­reach­ing its author­ity. It seems like once again the EPA is try­ing to take power it doesn’t have away from Amer­i­can cit­i­zens,” Sen. John Bar­rasso, Wy­oming Repub­li­can, said when he learned of the EPA’s wage gar­nish­ment scheme.

Oth­ers ques­tioned why the EPA de­cided to strengthen its collection mus­cle at this time.

Crit­ics said the threat of gar­nish­ing wages would be a pow­er­ful in­cen­tive for people to agree to ex­pen­sive set­tle­ments rather than fight EPA charges.

EPA of­fi­cials did not re­spond to re­peated ques­tions by The Wash­ing­ton Times about why they thought it was nec­es­sary to gar­nish people’s wages.

The EPA an­nounced the plan last week in a no­tice in the Federal Reg­is­ter, say­ing federal law al­lows it “to gar­nish non­Fed­eral wages to col­lect delin­quent non-tax debts owed the United States with­out first ob­tain­ing a court or­der.”

The agency cited author­ity un­der the Debt Collection Im­prove­ment Act of 1996 that cen­tral­ized federal collection op­er­a­tions un­der the Trea­sury Depart­ment, which over­sees gar­nish­ments of wages or tax re­fund checks.

Un­der the law, ev­ery federal agency has the author­ity to con­duct ad­min­is­tra­tive wage gar­nish­ment, pro­vided the agency adopts ap­proved rules for con­duct­ing hear­ings where debtors can chal­lenge the amount of debt or terms of re­pay­ment sched­ule, a Trea­sury of­fi­cial said.

Still, the rule would give the EPA sweep­ing author­ity to dic­tate how and whether Amer­i­cans could dis­pute fines and penal­ties, even as the amount of EPA fines col­lected from in­di­vid­u­als, businesses and lo­cal gov­ern­ments steadily in­crease.

The amount of fines raked in by the agency has jumped from $96 mil­lion in 2009 to $252 mil­lion in 2012, a more than 160 per­cent in­crease, ac­cord­ing to EPA an­nual re­ports.

Putting the collection pow­ers on a fast track, the agency an­nounced it in the Federal Reg­is­ter as a “di­rect fi­nal rule” that would take ef­fect au­to­mat­i­cally Sept. 2, un­less the EPA re­ceives ad­verse pub­lic com­ments by Aug. 1.

The EPA said it deemed the ac­tion as not a “sig­nif­i­cant reg­u­la­tory ac­tion” and there­fore not sub­ject to re­view. The neg­a­tive re­ac­tions be­gan al­most im­me­di­ately. In a com­ment let­ter sub­mit­ted to the EPA, the con­ser­va­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion faulted the rule for giv­ing the govern­ment “un­bri­dled dis­cre­tion” in con­trol­ling the process for chal­leng­ing fines and wage gar­nish­ment, such as dic­tat­ing the site of a hear­ing with­out con­sid­er­a­tion of the time and travel ex­pense placed on the ac­cused debtor.

The rule al­lows the EPA to de­cide whether a debtor gets a chance to present a de­fense and then picks whomever it chooses to serve as a hear­ing of­fi­cer, even some­one not trained as an ad­min­is­tra­tive law judge, wrote David S. Ad­ding­ton, group vice pres­i­dent for re­search at The Her­itage Foun­da­tion.

It also puts the bur­den of proof on the debtor, not the EPA, he said.

The EPA has been on the front lines of the bat­tle over Mr. Obama’s cli­mate change agenda, in­clud­ing is­su­ing pro­posed rules that would re­quire coal-fired power plants to cut car­bon diox­ide emis­sions by 30 per­cent over 15 years.

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