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On Eve of Earth Day, Higgins Warns that EPA Rollbacks Could Unravel Decades of Progress in Western New York

Apr 21, 2020
Press Release
Ending Enforcement Threatens Clean Air & Water

As the United States prepares to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-26) is deeply concerned that the Environmental Protection Agency’s lax policies are a threat to the incredible progress made to improve Western New York’s air and water quality.

On March 26, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a memo reporting it is ceasing all enforcement actions during the coronavirus pandemic.  This is just the latest in nearly 100 environmental rule rollbacks by the current Administration. 

In a letter to the EPA Administrator, Higgins writes: “As a representative of a constituency which had experienced more than its share of the negative impacts of historically unchecked industrial pollution, including environmental, economic and public health impacts, it is outrageous to me that the administration would attempt to use one international public health emergency to pursue a dangerous, unwarranted and unlawful policy that, if sustained, could ultimately result in a cascade of new, local public health crises all across the nation.”

Western New York’s Dirty Past

Residents at Love Canal in Niagara Falls were exposed to toxic waste dumped by Hooker Chemical in the 1940s. Following years of public activism, in 1978 President Jimmy Carter responded by declaring a federal health emergency and in 1980 Congress passed the Superfund Act, establishing an EPA program to manage the cleanup of hazardous sites, with Love Canal becoming the first project. The EPA and Department of Justice held the company accountable, years later wining a lawsuit to recoup $129 million toward cleanup costs. Thanks to the national and community coordination over decades, incredible progress was made to improve the environmental and ecological conditions in the region leading to Niagara River Corridor being named as one of just 40 wetlands of national significance in 2019. 

For years residents expressed concerns about improper environmental controls at Tonawanda Coke leading to air quality issues and health problems among neighbors. It was a criminal investigation by the EPA and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that revealed Tonawanda Coke deliberately ignored environmental policies, leading to the release of benzene, which is a known carcinogen.   In 2013 Tonawanda Coke was found guilty of violating the Clean Air Act, legislation first put in place shortly after the first Earth Day in 1970.  Congressman Higgins credited an engaged, enraged and educated community in their relentless pursuit to expose these violations. Today the air is cleaner and the site is undergoing a major cleanup.

On January 24, 1968, the Buffalo River caught fire due to contamination from heavy industrial development. The River was “devoid of oxygen and almost sterile,” coated with a thick oil film from industrial waste, combined sewer overflow outfalls, and garbage. Environmental atrocities like this in Western New York and across the nation inspired a grassroots push for change which led to the first Earth Day in 1970.

The Clean Water Act was subsequently approved in 1972 in response to the dumping of pollution into our waterways. At the time, two-thirds of the nation’s waterways were unsafe for fishing or swimming. The Buffalo River was declared an “Area of Concern” which led to massive federal cleanup efforts. 

Federal Rollbacks Squander Federal Investments

Higgins noted the rollbacks could squander millions of dollars in federal investments which have contributed to local economic revival, using the Buffalo River as an example.  Since 2010 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding appropriated by Congress has led to the investment of over $72.672 million, supporting more than 125 projects, in Western New York. The Buffalo River has transformed from a public health hazard to a national model for waterway cleanup efforts and is on track to be delisted as an Area of Concern.

In 2018 the University at Michigan released a study that found every dollar invested in the Great Lakes yields, on average, $3.35 in economic activity; in Buffalo, the rate of return is even higher, delivering $4 for each GLRI dollar invested here in Western New York.  Federal investments in Buffalo River cleanup have led to more than $428 million in private sector investments helping to drive Buffalo River revival.

EPA Must be Held Accountable

In a communication with New York State Attorney General Letitia James, Congressman Higgins backed the sentiments of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and 50 other organizations supporting efforts to hold the “federal administration to account for its lapses in the enforcement of federal environmental laws and its weakening of environmental regulations and their enforcement.”

Expands At-Risk Population

Higgins was also among 88 Members writing to the EPA pointing out the failure to monitor clean air and water puts more Americans at risk during health emergencies, like the current COVID-19 outbreak.  They wrote: “All Americans count on these environmental protections to enjoy public spaces and ensure that their water, food, and air are clean. This reckless action puts all Americans’ health at risk and creates a dangerous precedent for future health crises and other national emergencies. This enforcement failure could in turn increase the risk of human harm, create new environmental crises, and most critically exacerbate the risk for future infectious diseases.”