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The EPA Charade

The Philadelphia Inquirer's been running a good series about the toothless, indifferent and possibly even criminally negligent EPA: CHARLESTON, Tenn

The Philadelphia Inquirer's been running a good series about the toothless, indifferent and possibly even criminally negligent EPA:

CHARLESTON, Tenn. - In January 2005, residents near the chlorine plant here discovered that it was the biggest mercury emitter in the state. Environmentalists warned them against eating fish from their beloved Hiwassee River.

They appealed to the plant's owners, Olin Corp., to do what 100 other chlorine producers had done: abandon a 19th-century process that emits tons of the dangerous neurotoxin. Olin refused.

In fall 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency weighed in - but not to take up the cause of residents.

Instead, EPA called Olin with an offer. Would the Charleston plant like to be enrolled in Performance Track, an elite green club of the nation's most environmentally progressive companies?

In return, Olin could expect regulatory breaks, such as fewer inspections and loosened requirements on hazardous waste disposal, not to mention positive publicity.

Sherry Neidich, who has lived half her life a mile downriver from Olin's plant, was stunned.

"The EPA is a toothless dog," she said. "What right does someone have to ruin my river? To poison our playground?"

Ah yes, the beloved Republican myth of self-regulating industries! So far, that's worked... where? And guess what the Inquirer found?

Despite offering members regulatory breaks and promoting the program as one that improves environmental performance, the EPA fails to independently verify that Performance Track companies actually reach their goals.

Some Performance Track members have paid fines to settle EPA accusations that they broke environmental rules. Since 2003, they have racked up more than 100 violations and paid $15.25 million in fines - including $10.25 million paid by DuPont Co. for allegedly failing to provide information to the EPA about the health effects of a pollutant one of its plants spilled into drinking water.

At least a dozen Performance Track members have actually increased the amount of toxic chemicals they pump into the air and water.

The program has spent millions on publicity, but has become so desperate for new members that it has turned to gift shops and post offices with trivial environmental impact to pad its numbers.

The EPA insists that the program - which now numbers 548 members ranging from Fortune 500 companies to trailer parks - is a success. The 42 newest members, inducted this fall, include a Maker's Mark distillery, a veterans center, two municipal incinerators, and a Philip Morris cigarette plant.

Since 2001, the EPA said, Performance Track members report that they have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 310,000 tons, saved 3.7 billion gallons of water, and cut non-hazardous waste equivalent to that generated by 553,000 households.

Well, if they said it, it must be so!

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