There is an old saying about the economy that goes something like this: "A recession is when my neighbor loses his job; a depression is when I lose mine."
That perspective on financial matters seems to fit the debate over how the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) is enforcing the Clean Water Act.
It is remarkable how perceptions about the Clean Water Act have changed in the past couple of months since the EPA starting looking into sewage problems in the urban centers of the United States. It was a revered and hollowed piece of environmental legislation just two years ago when it provided the rationale for federal investigations into cattle feeding operations along the Wallowa and John Day rivers. Now many of the same urban legislators who praised the Clean Water Act back then now see it as a political weapon that it is being abused by federal agencies.
Urban leaders are accusing the Bush Administration of using the legislation to crack down on sewage spills in Portland, Cleveland, Boston and other Democratic strongholds. The implication is that Bush is getting even with urban communities because they did not support him in the presidential election.
Portland, which has been dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Willamette River for years, is under the gun to clean up its act. The city has come up with a $1 billion, 20-year plan to protect the river. However, that initiative may fall short of meeting federal standards and could be struck down, the EPA recently told members of the Portland City Council. As a result, some Portland officials are up in arms about what they perceive as overzealous enforcement by the EPA.
Portland Mayor Vera Katz, for one, suggested that the EPA's review of the city's sewer project was motivated not by concern for the environment or federal law but by complaints from farmers and ranchers in eastern Oregon who are facing wastewater restrictions of their own.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., a former member of the Portland City Council who now represents Portlanders in U.S. House of Representatives, likewise suggested that the EPA review was motivated not by science but by politics.
Imagine that! An environmental issue tainted by politics!
Of course, Mr. Blumenauer isn't telling the residents of eastern Oregon anything they don't already know about politics of the environment. The residents of eastern Oregon have been watching environmental politics destroy their economies for years. Under the circumstances some of them are likely see the spat over Portland's sewer problem as a dose of poetic justice. After all, the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and other environmental policies were formulated primarily by urban legislators at the bequest of their urban constituents. It is poetic, some would say, that these regulations are now coming back home to roost in the cities where they were spawned.
City officials say the the cost of repairing leaky sewers in Portland and other U.S. cities across the country will exceed $1 trillion, a figure that is approximately equal to one-sixth of the national debt. If that is true rural legislators may find many new allies in their quest to modify national environmental policies. R.S.