Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency forced the town of Belmont to take long-needed steps to clean up its leaky drains, which have been sloshing sewage into the Mystic River for years. It was an example of how federal regulators can crack down on towns that generate the lion’s share of the Commonwealth’s water pollution.
Unfortunately, if Governor Charlie Baker gets his way, that federal intervention could also be one of the last.
The Baker administration this year renewed its push for the state to take over water pollution regulation from the EPA, and the Legislature seems inclined to go along. At first blush that might seem like a wise precaution: With a hostile administration in Washington, it’s reasonable to fear that the EPA will go soft on polluters.
But presidential terms only last four years, and the switch Baker proposes would be permanent — and the state hasn’t shown that it would be a better steward of water regulation than the feds. On the contrary, environmental advocates fear that state regulators will face greater political pressure to go easy on town governments, which often quail at the cost of fixing their stormwater systems.
The Patrick administration concluded as much when it studied the regulatory framework in 2013, worrying that local regulators would be “inherently more subject to political pressure to make permit decisions less protective.”
Under the current arrangement, the EPA and state regulators co-issue the permits granted to municipalities for their storm drain systems. The state and feds have joint responsibility for monitoring towns to make sure they aren’t allowing pollutants into their runoff, and for pursuing violations.
It’s an unusual arrangement, but it’s worked. Under both Democratic and Republican presidents, the federal agency has held municipalities to account. The public enjoys cleaner water as a result.
Under Baker’s proposal, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection would have to shoulder all the responsibilities that the EPA handles now. It’s estimated the state would need to hire 50 to 100 more workers.
The state agency doesn’t have the budget for that. It also doesn’t seem to have the will: The DEP had a chance earlier this year to hold towns to a reasonable timeline for enforcement of a clean water rule, and instead chose not to. It was a disappointing move that makes crystal clear what lawmakers are getting if they approve the switch to state oversight.
It’s unfortunate that Baker, a Republican, recommended the change. Democrats in the Legislature, meanwhile, love to polish their environmentalist credentials — as long as it’s at the expense of safe targets like out-of-state fracking outfits or the scary Koch brothers. They’ll never get to cast a vote against those boogeymen, but they do have a say on Baker’s backward plan. Turning over oversight of river pollution to the state brings polluters one step closer to their regulators, and that would be a mistake.