Naked City

Sparks Sparks EPA

With razor-sharp satire and sternness, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks last week chastised the Environmental Protection Agency for dragging its feet on the settlement terms of a lawsuit involving the protection of the Barton Springs Salamander.

Sparks gave the EPA 40 days to respond to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service "jeopardy" study, released last July, which cited the EPA's lax enforcement of development regulations in the Barton Springs watershed. The EPA had initially agreed to issue a written response to Fish & Wildlife's findings by September 2001, but did not. The Save Our Springs Alliance subsequently filed suit, claiming the EPA was in violation of deadlines laid out in the settlement. The agreement had also called for the Fish & Wildlife study, which examined the EPA's implementation of the "construction general permit" process -- the authorization of storm water discharge associated with development in the watershed.

Sparks agreed with SOS, lashing out at the agency in his March 26 order. In response to the EPA's request to further extend its deadline to July 25, Sparks noted: "The Court ... cannot see any legitimate, apolitical reason the defendants [EPA] need over a year -- the gestation period of an ass -- to finalize" its end of the settlement agreement.

Environmental attorney Amy Johnson, who represented SOS in court last week, pointed out that it was the EPA, not Fish & Wildlife, that released the study to the public last year, "so they could let certain people comment on it" -- meaning the development community. The report, filed by Fish & Wildlife's Austin office, blamed excessive development in the watershed for causing high levels of pollution in Barton Springs, thus endangering the federally protected salamander.

The environmental community applauded Fish & Wildlife's findings, while builder reps said the study was just one more example of how the agency oversteps its regulatory authority. Both SOS and the Texas Capitol Area Builders Association had originally sued Fish & Wildlife -- but for opposing reasons. SOS wanted stiffer development regulations, while TxCABA claimed the agency overzealously enforced environmental laws. TxCABA leader Harry Savio said his opinion hasn't changed, but that he does not fault Sparks' ruling of last week. "It's understandable," he said. "EPA agreed to the settlement and they should comply."

Johnson, who has battled the EPA in various other lawsuits, says she was taken aback by EPA's failure to adhere to the settlement. "To be honest, it did surprise me. When people settle a lawsuit they tend to take it seriously. Now," she adds, "I've developed a new level of skepticism."

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