We have all been overwhelmed with tragic news and sometimes in that process we lose track of other smaller stories. Earlier in July the Washington Examiner had a story about the U. S. EPA regulations that made me think. Of course we need national and state regulations to protect the environment and humans. But sometimes the EPA just goes too far. Unfortunately I find many of the news stories about EPA regulations too shrill– with one side suggesting that EPA never gets it right or with characterizations of industry only inspired by greed or indifference to human health. I guess that cliched description makes a good made-for-TV movie or superficial news story with polarized positions. Those polarized characterizations don’t help any of us make sense of public policy.
The EPA has a proposed rule (expanding the existing rule) to protect our nation’s streams from contaminated stormwater from construction sites. Protection of stormwater is a very good move. My city, the city of Alexandria, Virginia, encourages its residents to minimize water discharges to hard surfaces (like driveways and runoff from roofs). Stormwater runoff in my area merely transports that contamined water to local streams and ultimately into the Chesapeake Bay. EPA is right that stormwater runoff is bad. Frankly we all are contributors to stormwater runoff–not just the construction industry. I do what I can to minimize water runoff from my roof and gutters sending that water into the ground to water trees. The goal is to keep most of it out the Chesapeake Bay. It also lowers my summer water bills.
But, in this proposed rule focusing on the construction industry, the EPA has gone a bit too far. I am sure the EPA intends only the best in proposing a rule that would require the construction industry to test for PCBs in ALL construction waste (demolition waste and even new construction debris where there are no PCBs used on site). PCBs were once used in many products for electrical fire protection. Later PCBs were recognized to be terribly dangerous for humans who ate fish. PCBs were removed from commerce in 1979. No one is questioning that PCB ban.
But EPA continues to worry about PCBs in construction debris. PCBs are not commonly found in 20th century legacy residential demolition debris. It appears there was a very limited sale of caulk material that legally contained PCBs. Soon after WWII ended a ship/submarine building company sold their surplus marine caulk with PCBs in it. It appears they sold it for just a couple of years. The owner was just selling his surplus caulk. The owner may have even give the caulk away for free–common after WWII as contractors transitioned back to peace-time manufacturing. A lot of those military contractors thought they were patriotic to sell at a discount or give away their surplus for homes being built for returning soldiers.
Industry researched this isolated caulk concern back in the 1980s and filed comments with EPA. It is true that some caulk materials containing PCBs was sold in California and used in a few hundred homes–but it did not appear that this type of caulk was used nationwide. But EPA, today, with the best of intentions, wants the entire construction industry to test its debris for PCBs in the infinitesimal chance that PCBs might be found in that 1940s era caulk. Imagine the cost on the home builders if this testing procedure is used nationwide. Imagine the costs passed on to us as consumers. This is an example of why some small businesses find it so hard to make a profit and perhaps why some in industry get so frustrated with EPA’s regulations.
We need smart and pragmatic regulations focused on real risks. We need stormwater regulations to protect rivers and streams. And that means continuing to regulate the construction industry in a reasonable way. One can only hope that the EPA will do the right thing when they finalize the Construction General Permit in late 2016 or early 2017. I hope they will review the docket with comments filed 2O+ years ago with the information that, at the time, suggested it was an isolated problem. If it reflected a de minimis (small volume) waste in the 1980s it would be even more so now. They should eliminate this debris testing provision entirely or certainly scale it back geographically to match the real risk.
And, for any of us worried about stormwater, we should ask ourselves if we hold ourselves to the same rigor in our own residential properties that the EPA holds the construction sector and other industries.