Seismic Shift at the EPA?

The D.C. quake led to evacuations that snuffed heated negotiations at the EPA over new beach water quality criteria.

I flew out to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with Nancy Stoner, the EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Water, to help voice environmental community concerns about the direction of the National Beach Water Quality Criteria due out in 2012. The NRDC’s Steve Fleischli, a longtime friend, joined me for the meeting with Stoner and about a dozen Office of Water staffers in the EPA East building. Other enviros from Surfrider Foundation, Heal the Bay and New Jersey’s Clean Ocean Action joined by phone.

We remain upset with the direction of the EPA draft criteria for a number of reasons. At a workshop in New Orleans earlier this year, and in a number of subsequent conference calls, EPA Office of Water staff made it clear that the proposed rules would be nearly identical to the 1986 criteria, marking almost no changes in 25 years. In some ways, the criteria will be even weaker than the 1986 version, despite more than two decades of new studies.

I had the privilege of taking the lead for the enviros in the meeting. I explained that EPA was considering an approach to beach water quality regulation that would be far less protective than California’s and would compound existing weaknesses in the 25-year-old criteria. Because I’ve spent those same 25 years working on beach water quality issues as an advocate, scientist, public health professional and legislative sponsor, I was pretty wound up.

About 50 minutes into today’s meeting, as I was attempting to make a key point, the ground started to move. Then the chandeliers started to sway.  The rock ‘n’ roll continued for nearly a minute, with some folks moving away from the light fixtures, others diving under the desk and still others crowding the door jamb.  There I stood, making a stand for greater health protection for swimmers and surfers during a 5.9 earthquake.

As you might gather, the D.C. locals were pretty freaked. This was definitely their first quake. We had SoCal summer weather and SoCal shaking during the beach criteria discussions. What could be more fitting than a Cali-style temblor? My comment at the end of the quake — “Don’t mess with us! — was not met with much humor, however.

Just as we attempted to get back to the beach, the evacuation began. Negotiations be damned. All of EPA. Every federal building in the D.C area. They all evacuated at the same time. The district stood still. Work for the Feds ended at 2 p.m. today.

Happily, early reports indicated no damages or injuries. I’m not sure if there’s truth to the rumor that U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor blamed the earthquake on environmental regulations. After all, he blamed the mortgage crisis and economy on them just yesterday.

We can only hope that the EPA Office of Water staff will remember the earthquake as the day that the environmental community fought for the Beach Water Quality Criteria to do more to protect public health. I’ll remember it as a day of unfinished business: The EPA’s criteria still need to be fixed.




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