By Kristen Lombardi and John Solomon – Center for Public Integrity
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 9:41 PM
In the name of job creation and clean energy, the Obama administration has doled out about $2 billion in stimulus money to some of the nation’s biggest polluters while granting them exemptions from a basic form of environmental oversight, a Center for Public Integrity investigation has found.
The administration has awarded more than 179,000 “categorical exclusions” to stimulus projects funded by federal agencies, freeing the projects from review under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Officials said they did not consider companies’ pollution records in deciding whether to grant the waivers. They said that creating jobs quickly was an important part of the stimulus plan, and that past environmental violations should not disqualify a company from pursuing federal contracts for unrelated projects.
The projects include:
- An electrical-grid upgrade project in Kansas led by Westar Energy, the state’s largest coal-burning utility, which settled a major air pollution case by paying half a billion dollars in penalties and remediation costs. The Energy Department granted the NEPA waiver to Westar’s project, funded by a $19 million stimulus grant that was approved on the same day the settlement became official. Westar considers its “smart grid” project to be “our basic,standard, above-ground upgrade,” said Brad Loveless, the company’s environmental director. “From everybody’s perspective, there really wasn’t the potential for smart grid to have environmental problems.”
- A wind farm project in Texas, as well as an electrical-grid upgrade project in five additional states, undertaken by Duke Energy. The department granted the NEPA waiver to both Duke projects, funded by a combined $226 million in stimulus grants, even as the energy corporation continues its decade-long defense against two of the largest air pollution cases involving coal utilities in the nation’s history. “We’re basically adding communication infrastructure on top of what is already there so it is not disturbing the environment,” Duke’s Paige Layne said.
- A project to create clean-burning biofuel from seaweed led by chemical giant DuPont, which received $8.9 million in stimulus funds in February. That amount nearly equals the environmental fine DuPont paid in 2005 for hiding the dangers of its toxic chemical known as C8 from federal regulators for two decades. In a statement, DuPont stressed that it “has not applied for an environmental exclusion” for its project, but rather is “following the necessary process set forth by the Department of Energy.” It concludes, “Each project that we work on includes, by our own policy, a comprehensive and individualized product stewardship program.”