Portland asks:
Is Bush using sewer crackdowns for political gain?

10/28/02

JIM BARNETT

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is cracking down on sewage spills in Portland and other major cities, even as it plans to roll back other clean-water regulations that primarily affect rural areas.

While Environmental Protection Agency officials insist they merely are following exacting rules drafted by the Clinton administration, city leaders accuse the administration of playing favorites and effectively penalizing people who live in traditional Democratic strongholds.

"A cynical person could say that it looks political," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., a former member of the Portland City Council. "I don't know how a spokesman for the administration could rationalize going after Portland and not against mining, to pick one obvious example."

Portland is the latest to feel the regulatory heat. But EPA also is closely watching performance of sewer systems in cities such as Atlanta, Cleveland, Boston and New Orleans, at times threatening legal action.

John Peter Suarez, EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement, said the agency isn't picking on Portland or anybody else. EPA often monitors cities' progress, and when necessary, it steps in to order a correction in course.

The problem arises with aging sewers that regularly spill their contents into nearby rivers and streams after rainstorms. Although cities from coast to coast have promised to clean up, in the administration's view they need close supervision.

EPA last month told Portland leaders that a $1 billion, 20-year plan to protect the Willamette and Columbia rivers could fall short of federal Clean Water Act standards.

The spat over Portland's plan is a symptom of a vast problem facing city councils across the country. Cities say the cost of fixing the nation's leaky, spill-prone sewers could total nearly $1 trillion -- an amount equal to one-sixth of the national debt.

Many older cities are ill-prepared to face staggering repair costs. Tax revenues have been squeezed by suburban flight, as well as the recent recession, and Congress has failed to authorize new assistance.

In Baltimore, Mayor Martin O'Malley agreed earlier this year to spend $900 million fixing city sewers to fend off EPA action. But he was angered that the administration offered no financial help for citizens of his struggling city.

"Basically, it's going to be put on ratepayers," said Gerry Shields, a spokesman.

Portland Mayor Vera Katz and other city officials stirred up a controversy this month by suggesting the EPA's review of the city's sewer plan was motivated by complaints from rural Eastern Oregon, where farmers and ranchers face wastewater restrictions.

Water-law experts and former Clinton administration officials said Katz's interpretation of events was too simplistic. Even some of Bush's harshest critics were reluctant to accuse the administration of taking punitive action against cities.

But several said the Bush administration appears to have stumbled blindly, perhaps naively, over an issue of fairness. By attempting to ease clean-water rules affecting farms, mines and timber lots, it might seem to punish other interests, including cities, that are working to comply with existing law.

Retribution doubted "It's a money thing, and it's a base thing," said Paul Schwartz, water policy director for Clean Water Action. "I think that's stronger than any retribution on the cities."

Eric Schaeffer, head of enforcement at EPA under Clinton, also saw no retribution. The investigation of the Portland cleanup, as well as those in many other big cities, began under the previous administration's watch, he said. The Bush administration is enforcing the law and should be applauded for doing so, even if the rest of its environmental record is weak.

"I'd say the pushing started several years ago," said Schaeffer, who quit earlier this year to protest the Bush's environmental policies. "The idea this is some kind of political shenanigan is just wrong."

EPA's only goal in reviewing Portland's plan, Suarez said, is to make sure residents are getting what they pay for -- clean water.

"What the people of Portland should know is that EPA is working with the city to try to ensure that their water quality and their sewage needs are going to be met when this plan is done," he said.

Combined sewers Portland is one of more than 1,000 cities that built combined sanitary and storm sewers early in the last century. The systems usually work well until they are overwhelmed with rainwater. Then they spew raw, bacteria-laden sewage into nearby waterways.

The problem is most acute in older, central cities, with an estimated 15,000 overflows occurring each year. Many cities are building massive underground pipes to divert storm water and prevent inundation of sewer lines.

In cities comparable in size to Portland, the cost of compliance is measured in billions of dollars. Cleveland and New Orleans also are joining the billion-dollar sewer club.

But compared with highways, bridges and other readily visible infrastructure, municipal sewers and waterworks receive little federal support. Most cities have few alternatives except to raise water and sewer rates to recoup their costs.

Higher rates tend to scare away new business, so low- and middle-income residents bear the brunt, said Michael Sullivan, mayor of Holyoke, Mass., the nation's first planned industrial city.

"The poor live in cities, and you're putting this on the backs of the poor," said Sullivan, whose small city must spend $70 million to repair 125-year-old sewers as it struggles with unemployment and crime.

In Portland, a typical customer pays $64.13 a month for water and sewer service -- the second-highest rate among 49 large cities surveyed by the consulting firm Black & Veatch -- and rates are expected to increase 8 percent a year for the foreseeable future.

Cities forced to tax Some mayors view government-ordered sewer repairs as unfunded mandates. Baltimore's O'Malley said his city's consent order with EPA would have the same effect as a tax increase.

"I just have to shake my head that the federal government would be so uncaring about the cost of this to the residents of the city," O'Malley said at a sewer board meeting in March. "You see, the way this thing works, the federal government does tax cuts, the state government does tax cuts, and cities are forced to tax."

Suarez said the EPA recently issued a report detailing the funding gap that cities face, and it plans a forum next year to identify solutions. But critics note that a bill earmarking $20 billion for construction died this fall for lack of support.

"There was no interest on the part of the administration," said Blumenauer, a member of the Water Resources and Environment subcommittee.

Meanwhile, mayors have raised a chorus of complaints about plans to unravel other clean-water regulations that administration officials regard as damaging to industry and the economy.

Of particular concern are regulations that require states to set maximum pollution levels -- called total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs -- for individual waterways and then develop plans to clean them up.

The regulations allow states to reach beyond factories and sewer systems to clean up "non-point" sources of pollution. Farmers, for example, could be required to build berms around fields to contain runoff.

Shortly after his inauguration, Bush set aside a Clinton administration rule expanding the maximum daily loads program. In August, EPA proposed a new rule to dilute enforcement powers that had been affirmed by the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

"They don't just dislike what the Clinton administration proposed, they want to render the whole program ineffective," said Joan Mulhern, a lawyer with Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group.

The administration also has proposed rollbacks of other environmental laws including the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, making its enforcement of sewer regulations seems disingenuous, critics said.

The proposed changes to the maximum daily loads program are particularly irksome because many cities have to clean water polluted by unregulated farms upstream, said Judy Sheahan, assistant director for government affairs at the National Conference of Mayors.

"It does feel grossly unfair that they keep on placing mandates on our pipes when you look upstream and we are taking in a lot of dirty water and trying to clean it up," Sheahan said.

Urban-rural breach But fairness is in the eye of the beholder.

Members of Congress representing rural areas, especially in the West, believe that their constituents have paid the heaviest price for compliance with environmental laws over the past two decades. If cities have to pay up now, they said, so be it.

Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., has led an effort to showcase what he thinks is unfair treatment of Western landowners. Many have lost control of their land as a result of environmental regulations that are virtually ignored in other parts of the country, he said.

To highlight the disparity, Radanovich distributed pictures of toxic sludge regularly dumped into the Potomac River from a drinking-water plant serving Washington. The dumping violates the Clean Water Act and threatens the short-nosed sturgeon, an endangered fish, but has continued unabated, he said.

"If the law were as strictly enforced in urban parts of the country as it is in the rural parts, then people in the urban areas would not tolerate it, and that would change the dynamic in Congress," Radanovich said.

Radanovich regards the water crisis in Oregon's Klamath Basin as a reverse example of uneven enforcement, said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman. Water was withheld from farmers in 2001 in order to protect suckers, which also are endangered.

"This is hypocrisy," Kennedy said.

Blumenauer, however, thinks the administration sends the wrong signal by threatening to strike down Portland's sewer plan, which has been in place since 1991. If city leaders think EPA will second-guess them even as it lowers standards elsewhere, they are less likely to cooperate with federal regulators, he said.

"This is a massive, national problem we are talking about," he said. "There is so much at stake that we can't afford to have any administration, Republican or Democrat, play politics or appear to play politics."

Jim Barnett: jim.barnett@newhouse.com; 503-294-7604.