Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peat’s Sake: The Slippery Slope of De-Regulation

For Peats Sake LogoBy Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

On Monday, February 6th, a tanker truck carrying home heating oil rolled over on the interstate highway running through Portland, Maine, spilling oil along the roadway and into the Fore River. Since that is right in my backyard, I was obviously very concerned about the potential short and long term impacts to the river as well as to the Casco Bay Estuary. It seems we hear similar stories more and more often about similar accidents across the country.  And with a greater federal emphasis on domestic energy production, I expect we’ll be hearing stories like this much more frequently.  However, spills associated with fossil fuel extraction, production and transport are typically much larger in volume than a local heating fuel truck spill. Transporting large amounts of fuel by truck or by train can be very risky and it is an argument that many advocates for pipelines use to support more construction.

transalaska021017But underground pipelines come with their own long list of risks as well – indeed there really is no perfect solution for safely transporting our energy supplies.  Although the thought of increasing domestic energy production worries me because it will most definitely be accompanied by an increase in environmental impacts (among others), I have to admit part of me thinks it is the best way to open people’s eyes to the risks associated with fossil fuel production and transport. When production is overseas, we often don’t hear about all the impacts to local communities. Now, I expect, we will experience first-hand the risks that accompany these activities more often.

So how do we protect ourselves from the risks associated with domestic energy production (including renewable energy)? The same way we have protected our nation’s environmental, public and economic health for decades – through regulations and permits that require businesses engaged in such activities to follow certain rules and thoroughly weigh the associated risks and benefits in a transparent and rational manner. Today’s environmental regulations were developed in response to identified needs for greater oversight and accountability. It has been a constant challenge to balance the sometimes competing needs for economic, environmental and public health, but it is one that many voices have debated over the years and as a result, we have developed a fairly decent level of compromise on many fronts.

penobscottriver021017One doesn’t have to look too far back to remember what it was like before we had some of our most important federal environmental regulations in place, such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. In Maine, we had a highly polluted Penobscot River – it was not a river that you wanted to wade in or develop a restaurant near. According to the Penobscot River Restoration Trust’s website, “Water quality in the Penobscot River has greatly improved during the last 30 years due to the reduction in industrial pollution required by the Clean Water Act. Communities across Maine already have turned toward these cleaner waters, revitalizing their riverfronts. The return of the Penobscot sea-run fishery and free-flowing river sections will provide opportunities to realize the river’s full potential, including revival of cultural and social fishing traditions.” In Maine, we have seen first-hand how a healthy environment can foster a healthy economy and healthy communities – it does not need to be an either/or situation.

riverfire021017I grew up in Ohio. In my “buckeye state” we all learned about the Cuyahoga River fire(s) in history class. On the website for Ohio History Central, you’ll find this: “Cleveland, OH was once known as a major industrial center within the United States.  As the 1960s came to an end, so did the country’s reliance on industrialized manufacturing.  However, Cleveland continued production which when paired with a lack in sewer and waste disposal regulation, maintained the littering of the Cuyahoga River…..The Cuyahoga River was once one of the most polluted rivers in the United States as represented by the multitude of times it has caught fire, a recorded number of thirteen starting in 1868.” The final fire in 1969 was what inspired the US Congress to pass the National Environmental Protection Act, which led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and subsequently the Clean Water Act in 1972. “The river is now home to about sixty different species of fish, there has not been another river fire since 1969, and yearly new waste management programs develop to ensure the sanitation of Cleveland’s waterways.”

I fear, however, that we have somehow lost our memory of what once was and may not appreciate how much better things are now. Without this historical perspective we may fail to recognize how good we have it now compared to the environment that our parents and/or grandparents grew up in. Changes to our most important federal environmental regulations (and this is not to say that there is never room for improvement, just that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater) should be fully vetted and pros and cons carefully weighted before action is taken. Any changes need to be evaluated by both federal and state agencies in order to determine the right mix of federal versus state authorities and responsibilities. These regulations were developed during a time when political parties on both sides of the aisle recognized that the health of our economy and the health of our communities were integrally tied to the health of our environment. This bipartisan partnership needs to continue – we cannot afford to lose ground on our achievements over the last 47 years to partisanship and/or political ideology. I for one will continue to do all I can to hold the line on our achievements, and For Peat’s Sake, I hope you will too.

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