The Deadlines That Failed

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency was told to collect water pollution-control plans from Maryland, Virginia and the District by 1979.

The first arrived in 1998.

The EPA itself set a 1975 deadline when it ordered the Washington area to fix its smog problem.

Three decades later, the region still has dangerous Code Orange, Code Red and even Code Purple days in the summer.

In the world of missed deadlines, it's hard to find anyone who does it on the scale of the EPA.

This history, which has frustrated local environmentalists and teed off a succession of judges, is relevant again now. There will soon be due dates looming for cleanups of the Blue Plains sewage plant, the Anacostia River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Or maybe, activists worry, they won't be looming over anyone if the EPA can't improve on its record of delays and lax enforcement

"When push comes to shove," said David Baron, an attorney with the group Earthjustice, which has sued the EPA dozens of times to enforce various deadlines, "there ain't no push, and there ain't no shove. The EPA just doesn't have the guts and the political will to get tough."

The EPA, of course, is not the first government agency to run behind schedule. Officials at the agency defend themselves by saying that on their watch, there have been significant reductions in air and water pollution-- even if deadlines have been missed along the way.

Local and federal officials say they are committed to meeting future due dates.

"We take deadlines very seriously, and we are working pretty hard with the jurisdictions in the D.C. area currently to make sure that they are on track," said Judith Katz, who oversees EPA air pollution programs for the mid-Atlantic.

Some of the agency's critics also concede that the EPA sometimes gets complex mandates from Congress, requiring them to untangle centuries-old pollution problems in a few years, often without adequate funding.

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