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Policy: Environment & Energy

EPA has no business garnishing wages without due process: Examiner Editorial

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Opinion,Editorial,Supreme Court,Idaho,Wyoming,EPA,Energy and Environment,Law,Washington Examiner

It took Mike and Chantell Sackett five years and a unanimous Supreme Court decision just to gain a fighting chance against a thuggish Environmental Protection Agency. Officials appeared at their Idaho property in 2007 threatening them with fines of $37,500 per day unless they immediately stopped construction on their dream home on land they owned near a lake. The agency cited the Clean Water Act after a neighbor complained, perhaps upset at the prospect of another home being built in the well-developed neighborhood. There are dozens of adjacent homes, multiple piers on the lake and even a well-trafficked marina close at hand. The Sacketts' property already had a sewer hookup.

The agency not only threatened to ruin the Sacketts, but also insisted they could nothing to contest the agency's actions. So, the couple took their case to court, battling EPA efforts to deny them due process of law at every step all the way to the Supreme Court. But after losing that case unanimously in 2012, the EPA now wants to strengthen its hand for future confrontations with individual citizens who, like the Sacketts use their private land in ordinary ways with little or no significant consequences to the environment. The agency announced July 2 that it plans new regulations claiming the power to garnish workers' wages in order to collect fines and other money owed the agency without so much as a court order.

No hearing is guaranteed, and, even if one is granted, the burden of proof falls entirely on debtors rather than the agency.

The EPA bullies western homeowners all too often. Earlier this year, the agency threatened Andy Johnson of Uinta County, Wyo., with fines of up to $75,000 per day unless he destroys a pond he had built on his property. The pond uses crystal-clear water from a two-foot-wide creek that runs through his land and feeds existing irrigation canals.

Even though Johnson had state permits to build his pond, the EPA claimed the creek's water eventually reaches a river and thus falls under the Clean Water Act. Johnson is receiving free legal help, but absent that, he has said he would go bankrupt trying to fight the federal government on his own. An EPA threat of wage garnishment would weaken his position and that of others in his situation further still.

There is a 1996 law that allows federal agencies to garnish wages. And, as Heritage Foundation Vice President David Addington notes in his official comment against these new EPA rules, government agencies need some recourse when deadbeats refuse to pay legitimate government debts. But Addington takes issue with the lack of anything resembling due process under the EPA's proposed rules -- a flaw shared by similar rules already adopted by other agencies as well.

No hearing is guaranteed, and even if one is granted, the burden of proof falls entirely on debtors rather than the agency. As the Sackett and Johnson cases demonstrate, the EPA has a track record of depriving citizens of due process. As a prudential matter, it would be a profoundly bad idea for Congress to let the agency get away with empowering itself this way, even if current law permits it.

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