Thursday, November 10, 2011

The EPA's Secret List Is Surprisingly Boring

Posted By on Thu, Nov 10, 2011 at 6:13 AM

The Center for Public Integrity and NPR have gotten their hands on the EPA's secret watch list and are now sharing it with the world. The reason it was a secret, according to Richard Alonso, a former top Clean Air Act enforcement official at the EPA, is that the EPA was afraid it would look like some kind of "most wanted" list.

Having read the list, it's clear that, yes, certainly, it could be misconstrued as a "most wanted" list. But in actuality, this appears to be a very well-laid-out to-do list — these are all the companies the EPA needs to follow up with to make sure they're in compliance. I'm trying to make a subtle distinction here, but it's an important one. I think when people hear "secret government watch list" they think "Oh, here all all of the companies who are poisoning us! Now we know the truth!"

But I was looking at the Tennessee companies on the list, about 25 of them, and the responses they gave to the CPI and NPR for why they're on the list range from "This plant hasn't operated for a few years" (Alcoa Inc.) to "Our temporary inclusion on the list was appropriate based on our self-reporting of two minor non-compliance situations." (Nissan). Many of the Tennessee companies are on the list for clerical errors. Others report having no idea why they're on the list. Of course, not everyone responded, and the list doesn't say why they're on there. But Tennessee companies come across as relatively well-behaved.

This is not to say there aren't enormous raging douche canoes on this list. Just scrolling through other states, I can see responses that lead me to believe something very bad is probably happening at that company.

But it's pretty obvious why this list was kept secret — not because the government is trying to cover up how bad certain companies are polluting communities, but because it really is a list full of companies they need to check back in with, some of which are really bad actors, some of which have facilities that have closed and the EPA doesn't know it, and everything in between.

I think the government's impulse to keep all those different facilities from being lumped together is a good one, but now it seems even more nefarious, like there is a "bad guy" list and that they lied to America about it until the CPI and NPR got to the bottom of it. The truth is actually much more boring.

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