A Challenge to EPA

by William D. Ruckelshaus
[EPA Journal - Nov./Dec. 1980]

While ten years have passed since EPA was launched, my memory of its beginning is still strikingly vivid. At 20th and "L" Street, our first headquarters, we were a mixture of political and career government employees charged with excitement and challenge. The issue of the environment had exploded on the country like Mt. St. Helens. A combination of factors like the disillusioning effect of the Viet Nam war, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the inescapable visibility of air and water pollution, the advent of color television, the tendency of Americans in the 1960s and 70s to embrace causes, and it needs to be said, the underlying substance of our concern about the impact of man's activities on the essentials of life, all led to the explosion. The result was EPA and counterpart agencies in most of the States, a flood of environmental and health related laws and regulations, and the inevitable conflict that accompanies social change.

My own view of the nature of the environmental problem changed rapidly during the early months of my tenure at EPA. Given my background as a lawyer in and out of government, and my limited exposure to the lack of scientific certitude about pollution while trying to enforce rather crude air and water pollution laws in the State of Indiana, I entered EPA with some basic assumptions. I thought we knew what the bad pollutants were, where they came from, at what levels they caused harmful environmental or health effects, how to measure pollutants in the air and water and finally, how to control pollution to acceptable levels at reasonable costs.

The core of the problem, I felt, was that we had delegated to the States the enforcement responsibility and since they compete so fiercely for the location of industry within their borders, they weren't very good enforcers. Centralizing the enforcement responsibility in the Federal Government would soon solve our environmental problems. It might have, if my basic assumptions had been correct, but it soon became clear to me that none of them were.

We had identified only some of the bad actors. With disturbing regularity we uncovered "new" pollutants that harm us or our surroundings. We do know a great deal about the origins of pollution, but too much of it comes from nonpoint sources to make its control simple. Our ability to pinpoint the adverse health or environmental effects at a given concentration, or measure those adverse concentrations in the air or water, varies greatly with the individual pollutant and media in which it is found. Lastly, while we can technologically virtually eliminate pollution, the costs to the society are enormous and in some cases prohibitive. All this is to say things weren't as they seemed to me at the creation.

Unfortunately, many of our pollution laws passed in the flush of our early concern embodied many of my erroneous assumptions. For both air and water cleanup, we created a standard enforcement process which, by law, mandated for the whole Nation perfectly healthy air by 1975 and waters that would be "fishable and swimmable" shortly thereafter with 1985 as the date by which no pollutants would be discharged into our steams and lakes. I have become increasingly disenchanted with our society's tendency to set for itself goals which are either impossible to achieve or unwise to pursue. Leaving that bias aside, which I recognize is challenged by those who believe inspiration and progress only come from reaching beyond our grasp, the promise by law of more than EPA could deliver has taken its toll.

In the last decade, great progress has been made in improving our environment by any standard. And it has been made in the face of continued industrial and population growth--the two great contributors to pollution. Setting for ourselves unachievable goals of perfection has greatly inhibited our ability to measure progress and thus to reassure the American people that we are grappling successfully with our own complexities. Clearly we have not reached the millennium in our efforts to guarantee a global future.

New and vexing problems like toxic dumps and acid rain, to mention only two, crop up almost daily. But we have awakened to the darker side of viewing air and water as free, limitless commodities and to the thoughtless application of new technology. We are striving mightily to cope. From that effort we should take pride and instill public confidence that all is not lost. The time for hand-wringing has long since passed.

The American people do understand that we have a problem in cleaning up our environment and protecting public health. They overwhelmingly support efforts to address this problem. It is my conviction that if the public better understood both the complexity of our undertaking and the ten-year determination of our government to successfully respond to the public will, they would support the rationalization of our environmental laws. It is not my purpose here to dive into the morass of arguments about what changes are needed in our laws to make them better serve the public interest. At the least they should conform our goals to social reality and provide EPA with a framework within which continued progress can be made and measured by the Congress and the American people.

Since leaving government rather suddenly one Saturday night, and finally lighting in my present position with Weyerhaeuser, I've often been asked, "How does it feel to have changed sides?" The notion that our government and American industry are on opposite sides is one of the most socially corrosive perceptions in America today. I never thought of myself in government as being on the "other side" of American industry. I was a servant of the people charged with the responsibility of acting in their interest.

The public interest is complicated enough for a government official to divine without further confusing his thought process by depicting the industrial segment of our society as the adversary. No other developed nation in the Free World pits its government against its industry quite the way we do. I believe it is a stance we must drop in the future if our society is to continue to prosper and successfully compete. It will take restraint, dedication and wisdom by people in and out of government if the current chasm between the public and private sector is to be closed. I believe it is well worth the effort because not only the future of the environment but of free institutions is at stake.

The essential question for us to answer in America today is: Are we a wise enough people to achieve our environmental goals and minimize the impact on other legitimate social concerns--all within the context of freedom? To the extent we are capable of answering that question in the affirmative, we will have shown the rest of the world, in the best way possible, that the path of freedom is the one to which all should repair. It is very much the job of every employee at EPA to show our country how the environment can be protected without doing violence to freedom.

My experience at EPA convinced me that we had the capacity to attract the best and the brightest our country could produce. I have seen no diminution of that capacity in the intervening years. It is very much up to you--the best and the brightest--to ensure that brilliance and wisdom coincide. You remain in the forefront of change in our country. Work always to effect that change in the public interest you serve, and don't lose sight of the need to preserve certain enduring values like freedom and justice in the process.

If you do that you will earn and deserve the undying gratitude of your fellow countrymen.

Ruckelshaus was EPA's first Administrator and was, at the time of this article, Senior Vice President of the Weyerhaeuser Co.