Trump’s EPA pick emboldens Fort Smith city leadership on new consent decree terms

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 232 views 

At a recent budget hearing, Fort Smith City Director George Catsavis asked whether terms of the $480 million consent decree leveled against the city by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could be revisited during a President Trump administration.

City Administrator Carl Geffken answered first by acknowledging Trump’s campaign rhetoric — he spoke on multiple occasions of “dismantling” the EPA — and concluded that outlook in a new administration “could portend well for us,” but in the meantime the city would move forward fulfilling terms to the best of its ability.

Geffken later told Talk Business & Politics the city was “looking to see what the impact is … to implement the consent decree and to see if there is a better and more cost efficient way to achieve those goals while making sure our citizenry are not being charged at an excessive rate.” On Thursday, Geffken was optimistic about the city’s position in light of Wednesday’s announcement that Oklahoma Attorney General — and President Obama climate critic Scott Pruitt, who is suing the EPA accusing regulatory overreach — would take over the agency in January.

Geffken said the decision to make Pruitt “the next Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency fulfills the President-elect’s goal for the EPA. … As he (Trump) stated today, ‘My administration strongly believes in environmental protection, and Scott Pruitt will be a powerful advocate for that mission while promoting jobs, safety, and opportunity.’ To quote the President-elect’s transition team, ‘(Pruitt) brings a deep understanding of the impact of regulations on both the environment and economy.’ This balance, when implemented through the Regional Administrators and their staff, should help the city when we meet with the EPA to discuss better and more efficient ways — either cost or process — to achieve the outcomes of the consent decree.”

Catsavis and fellow Fort Smith City Director André Good were also eager to tackle the issue as soon as possible with Catsavis telling Talk Business & Politics that “with the changes in Washington, I feel that the city has an opportunity to address the consent decree and possibly renegotiate the terms set forth.”

“I understand that the city has to correct our sewer issue, but I would like to see better terms that would allow us to have less of a financial impact on our citizens, such as more time to complete this mandate. That would lessen the cost to people in Fort Smith. I know several of the board members have had several calls and emails from people that are struggling to pay their sewer bills. City administration and legal are also involved in this issue and are hopeful something can be done in the near future,” Catsavis said.

Good said he liked the fact Pruitt “is known for fighting the EPA,” adding that the new leadership “will probably try to reform the EPA, which will help find solutions between the agency and those whom they tend to be heavy-handed on.” Still, as with Catsavis, Good said he understood “the sewer and wet weather issues need to be addressed.”

“I would be in favor of appealing the consent decree,” Good said. “And even though I previously stated that we could not rely on the federal government for funding, we may now have a chance at revisiting our consent decree with President-elect Donald Trump’s pick (Pruitt). Trump’s criticism of President Obama’s climate change policies and Pruitt’s disdain for the EPA makes for a perfect combination to dismantle President Obama’s environmental legacy. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but this could be the help the city of Fort Smith’s residents need to counter our escalating sewer rates.”

If the Board does choose to appeal or renegotiate the consent decree, Good said, “I am sure our first steps are to seek legal counsel from Daily & Woods. (Geffken) has had experience dealing with such matters and may have a different approach.”

Whatever the city decides to do, it will have the support of the Arkansas congressional delegation. Talk Business & Politics reached out to U.S. Sens. John Boozman,R-Ark.,  and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., as well as U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, for comment. A Womack representative said the congressman “has been briefed by the city as they work through the compliance objectives of the consent decree” and that it is Womack’s intent “to be of assistance in any way possible to ensure the long-term success of Arkansas’s second-largest city.”

Sen. Boozman said he looked forward to working with the Trump administration “to address the needs of Arkansas communities.” On the consent decree issue, he said, “I will continue to advocate for Fort Smith and support its leaders, but there is a limited role for Congress in this particular matter. We’ve been able to get people to the table so they can agree on an outcome but Congress is not able to make any final decisions.”

Boozman’s view of Congress’s role as “limited” is because the consent decree stems from violations of Public Law 92-500 (aka the federal Clean Water Act) — authorized by Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon on Oct. 18, 1972 — rather than any actions from the Obama administration. Even so, Sen. Cotton said under a Trump-Pence administration he will “work to roll back the last eight years of EPA over-regulation and ensure more transparency and accountability” in the agency — something that may have at least an indirect effect on how consent decree terms are negotiated in the future.

For now, the city will have to push forward with sewer rate increases that have climbed more than 100% in many cases. By January 2017, the average bill of a Fort Smith customer for sewer alone will total $47.91, up from $19.63 prior to the hike. Furthermore, Fort Smith Interim Utilities Director Bob Roddy said at the prior budget hearing “at some point in the future, it is my opinion you (the Board) will have to look at water (rates) as well.”

While no such increases were budgeted for 2017, the possibility echoed a similar discussion the Board had with Roddy in October, and, for Good, it amplifies the importance of the issue for the Board.

“I’d hope the entire board would want to move on revisiting and challenging this as quickly as possible,” he said.