A number of the nation's biggest polluters received exemptions from basic environmental oversight for federally funded stimulus projects, according to a published report.
While the stimulus bill was being debated in Congress in 2009, numerous companies lobbied for environmental exemptions, but their efforts were ultimately rebuffed by environmental advocates.
But while companies may have failed to pressure Congress into issuing legislative exemptions from environmental oversight, federal agencies granted exemptions to 96 percent of stimulus projects so far, according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
The energy companies BP, Westar Energy and Duke Energy, chemical manufacturer DuPont, and ethanol maker Didion Milling were among the companies to receive "categorical exclusions" from the National Environmental Policy Act.
Enacted by Congress in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to conduct a review of the potential environmental effects of their proposed actions, making it one of the few proactive environmental laws.
As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, more commonly known as "the stimulus," officials granted over 179,000 exemptions from NEPA to recipients of federal stimulus funding. Senior officials say the exemptions were necessary to accelerate the pace of the stimulus plan and job creation.
"NEPA is the federal government's guarantee that the pros and cons of, and alternative approaches to, its investments and actions will be thoughtfully considered and informed by the best available scientific and factual information," 31 groups said letter sent to members of Congress in 2009. "Inevitably, in the course of congressional consideration, special interests will assert that we cannot afford the NEPA process in a time of national urgency. The truth is that we cannot afford that kind of leap-before-you-look rashness."
"What we are doing is providing federal funding to increase energy efficiency and increase the use of clean energy," Scott Blake Harris, the Energy Department's general counsel, told the Center for Public Integrity. "I think that sends a good message to the entire American public, whether or not there are companies that have decided to do environmentally good things after doing bad things."
The energy company Westar Energy received a $19 million dollar stimulus grant and exemption from NEPA despite the fact that it recently settled a major air pollution case by paying a half billion dollars in penalties.
Likewise, a stimulus project at a BP owned refinery in Texas received an exemption from environmental oversight even though it was the site of a deadly 2005 explosion and later emitted 500,000 pounds of harmful air pollutants over the course of 40 days.
Another energy company, Duke Energy received an exemption for its stimulus project while in the midst of two of the biggest air-pollution cases in the nation's history.
Despite these companies' poor environmental and safety records, Harris is confident the stimulus projects under their control will not results in any serious harm.
"I'd eat my hat if [NEPA officers] got something wrong," he said.
Officials used a speedy review process that relied on voluntary disclosures by companies to determine whether proposed stimulus projects could harm the environment, documents show. The past safety and pollutions records of companies applying for federal stimulus money were not considered.
"It's outrageous to give these companies these big breaks when they haven't earned a bit of trust from the communities around them," said Joe Kiger, who filed a 2001 lawsuit alleging he was poisoned by chemicals DuPont let seep into a his drinking water. "I'm all for the stimulus, and I’m all for job creation, but not at the expense of the environment and human health."