Regulatory review a dangerous path

Baker's call to streamline rules threatens forward-looking Massachusetts policies

NOW THAT SPRING has finally arrived in the Commonwealth, many of us are starting our spring cleaning – getting rid of clutter, washing windows and drapes, dusting away cobwebs. And perhaps that is Gov. Baker’s intention with his recent executive order calling for a review of all existing regulations enforced by the executive branch – to ensure that we are not overburdening our businesses and residents with cluttered policies of the past.

Upon closer scrutiny, however, the governor’s announcement is not a cursory review, but rather calls for the elimination of any state regulations that are more stringent than their federal counterparts.

As taxpayers, we all want our government to regulate the economy in a way that is fair and cost-effective. But when it comes to our air, our water and our lands, there is a reason we have a tradition of safeguarding our natural resources above and beyond what the federal government requires.

The executive order claims, “Only those regulations which are mandated by law or essential to the health, safety, environment, or welfare of the Commonwealth’s residents shall be retained or modified.” But who gets to define “essential”?

Here are just a few examples of environmental protections that could be at risk under this review:

Mercury

Mercury pollution is prevalent in Massachusetts waterways; even iconic Walden Pond is not immune. Mercury is predominantly emitted from power plants, lands in waterways, is ingested by fish, then ingested by humans who eat the fish. Mercury poisoning causes neurological damage prenatally and in young children.

Massachusetts first imposed limits on power plant emissions of mercury in 2001. Congress has known about the risks to human health from mercury pollution since 1997, but the federal government didn’t impose sufficient mercury limits on power plants until this month, and the national standards remain weaker than those of the Commonwealth.

Without more stringent state protections, the Brayton Point coal plant in Somerset would have been releasing larger quantities of mercury into our air and waterways.

Superfund

The federal Superfund Law (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act or CERCLA) ensures that sites contaminated by hazardous wastes are cleaned up. Here in Massachusetts, more than half of all brownfield sites are contaminated with oil from leaking underground storage tanks – yet oil is not one of the regulated hazardous wastes under Superfund. Rather, state law Chapter 21E ensures that property owners are responsible for soil and groundwater contamination from oil. There are 32 federal Superfund sites in Massachusetts, but over 4,000 confirmed or suspected sites regulated under state law.

Thanks to Massachusetts going above and beyond the federal Superfund law, oil that would otherwise still be leaking into our groundwater has been or will be cleaned up.

Endangered Species Act

According to Jack Clarke of Mass Audubon, the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act protects 299 native plants and animals not protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. This includes iconic species such as the peregrine falcon, bald eagle and the soon-to-be-delisted by the federal government, humpback whale.

What is particularly perplexing and questionable about this move by the governor—besides the fact that there has not been any public outcry about allegedly onerous regulations in the Bay State–is there is a long history of Massachusetts Republican governors taking matters into their own hands in the face of federal inaction. Jane Swift was in office when the New England governors first got together to attack the problem of power plant pollution and restrict nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and mercury from Massachusetts’s “filthy five” and Connecticut’s “sooty six.”

More recently, who can forget Gov. Mitt Romney standing outside Salem Harbor declaring, “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people, and that plant — that plant kills people.”

And what is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), if not a voluntary state-by-state regulation on power plant emissions that goes above and beyond what the federal government offers? RGGI has resulted in tightening limits on power plant pollution and over $300 million in revenue to the Commonwealth since 2008, funds that have been reinvested in clean energy infrastructure, energy efficiency, and thousands of local jobs that cannot be outsourced.

The fact that states have the authority to promulgate rules that go above and beyond federal standards is not a bad thing – it is a good and necessary thing, for our own air and water, and for other states and the federal government who look to Massachusetts as a model to emulate.

Meet the Author

Emily Norton

Executive director, Charles River Watershed Association
Too often, at the congressional level, clean water and clean air take a backseat to special interests, ideological crusades and corporate profits. That is not our tradition in the Commonwealth. Massachusetts should be leading, not following, when it comes to protecting public health and our irreplaceable natural resources.

Emily Norton is director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club.