EPA's Task

by Russell E. Train
[EPA Journal - Nov./Dec. 1980]

There were those at the start of the 1970s who predicted that, as soon as times got tough and the bills came due, the country's commitment to environmental improvement and integrity would evaporate as swiftly and suddenly as it had seemed to emerge. Yet, as the polls have shown, EPA's experience over the years has only strengthened that commitment. The energy crisis, together with the mounting evidence that pollution is even more widespread and harmful than the Nation had realized, has increasingly brought home the fact that "environment" is not simply another problem to be solved or crisis to be surmounted. As William Shannon, formerly of the New York Times and currently U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, once said, it is the overall and underlying context within which we must weigh and deal with the various economic, energy, and other crises and problems that confront us.

If EPA's efforts seem to reach out and touch the lives of every American, that is because the health and well-being of every American is directly affected by the condition and quality of his or her environment. The Agency has, as its constituency, not a single, separate segment of our society actively involved in environmental causes, but every American who lives and breathes--as well as millions upon millions of Americans who have yet to take their first breath. It is precisely for that reason--because environmental concerns are such a vital and inescapable fact of every American's life--that the job at EPA is so demanding, so difficult, so controversial and so well worth doing. It is that sense that the environment is something really worth caring and doing something about that has seen the Agency through some very rough experiences.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the environmental effort did not spring up overnight and out of nowhere, and that we had air and water and other environmental laws on the books long before the start of the 1970s. It was not just a few activists, but a broad cross-section of the American people as a whole, who decided that these laws just had not worked adequately, that we could no longer afford halfway measures, and that environmental hazard and harm had reached levels we could no longer tolerate. It was in response to this gathering public consensus that the Congress began to construct a comprehensive set of programs that would, as a matter of national policy, make environmental concerns an important part of our lives.

Long-Term Damage

We knew that such an effort would be costly. But we also understood that society was already bearing heavy costs in one way or another--in the loss of recreational uses of rivers and beaches, in the increased treatment costs of our drinking water, in the cost of managing the mounting volume of solid wastes in and around our cities, in the damage from air pollution to buildings, farm crops, and forests, and most importantly in human suffering and death, medical and hospital bills, and time lost on the job because of illness.

We were also beginning to understand that pollution frequently imposes long-term damage to entire ecosystems with costs that could well be enormous in terms of future human welfare, although largely unquantifiable in any immediate sense. As a result, the Nation fashioned a set of programs that, by requiring the reduction and control of pollution at the source, would not only shift the costs of pollution from the shoulders of society as a whole onto those of the polluter, but would encourage the development of processes and practices that generate less pollution in the first place.

Americans have since run into not only very real and rising economic and fiscal constraints, but other kinds of constraints as well--energy, agricultural, and social, among others. Nor should that come as any surprise: the more society succeeds in taking environmental concerns and costs into account in its activities and institutional arrangements, the more the environmental effort itself must take other important concerns and costs into account.

There are, however, those who continue to argue that environmental regulation, in and of itself, is an undesirable constraint on growth and to ignore the fact that it is pollution, not its regulation, that constitutes the real constraint on economic or any other human activity that raises the level of harmful environmental pollution. If pollution with its adverse effects on human health were to be unchecked, I am convinced that even current levels of industrial activity would soon prove unacceptable. Our society simply would not accept economic or other growth at the expense of widespread harm to human health and a degraded quality of life.

Reckoning Environmental Costs

It should be clearly understood that EPA is an entirely different "animal" from such traditional regulatory agencies as the Interstate Commerce or Federal Power Commissions, whose job is to get rid of obstacles and inefficiencies that keep market forces from operating freely. EPA was established not to keep these forces from operating, but to make certain that they operate in the public interest by insuring that the market increasingly takes into account environmental costs that it would otherwise exclude from its calculations.

Left unregulated in a highly advanced industrial society, most of the normal economic incentives of a competitive, free enterprise system tend to work to encourage the disposal of vast volumes of wastes into the environment, at the rapidly increasing expense of the public health and welfare. Regulation (or an alternative or complementary system of economic changes) is required to internalize this expense, thus utilizing the free market system to achieve pollution abatement with greater efficiency and at least cost.

EPA could make no greater mistake as an Agency than to behave as if it were simply and solely an advocate for the environment in an adversary proceeding. In this connection, there is a growing recognition in our society that over-reliance on adversarial approaches to the resolution of issues can be excessively costly in economic terms as well as productive of what sometimes seems almost endless delay in decision-making. EPA has a particular responsibility and opportunity, it seems to me, to take a public lead in pursuing alternative modes of conflict resolution in the environmental area. Effective regulation must include prompt resolution of issues. Our society needs to innovate in this regard. The Agency should be alert to counter the bureaucratic tendency to resist innovation and "stick by the book."

The American people have made it clear that they are willing to pay the price for a clean and healthy environment. But this willingness could be jeopardized if they are not fully informed of what the trade-offs are or lose their confidence that the costs are no larger than they need be and that the benefits are worth those costs. EPA has demonstrated its determination to minimize the social and economic impacts of its efforts--to do all it can to meet its responsibilities in ways that will not put people out of business or out of work or impose excessive and unreasonable costs. When I was Administrator, we were confident that the Agency had the most open and rigorous process of economic impact analysis in the entire Federal Government. I have no reason to think that this situation has changed, and I hope EPA will continue to improve that process.

EPA also has undertaken a major effort to simplify and streamline its regulations. To carry out its regulatory responsibilities EPA has issued a significant body of complex regulations. But it must also recognize that its success in the future will be measured by how clean the air and water become, not by the quantity and complexity of its regulations, and it has been committed to a continuing program of regulatory review.

Action-Forcing Standards

It has been suggested that Congress in its environmental legislation set standards and timetables for their implementation that were simply not achievable, that EPA had been given an impossible mandate to carry out. I certainly agree that EPA in the past has had a very difficult mandate to carry out, one not fully achievable in all respects within the statutory timetables even if it had al the resources it might want. At the same time, I have been in full agreement with the Congressional approach of setting standards and timetables which are action-forcing and technology-forcing. To do otherwise would be to require only the lowest common denominator of what is currently achievable.

Such an approach would secure the best compliance record and the least overall progress. The approach actually adopted, particularly in the Clean Air Act, has forced technology and brought about strong progress. The disadvantages of such an approach are that a certain amount of nonattainment on schedule will inevitably occur and that there will be increases in economic cost and technological inefficiency in some cases. In my opinion, these disadvantages are far outweighed by the advantages.

The Agency has had the most success in carrying out those parts of our environmental laws that involve the control of specific sources of emissions or effluents by the application of technology. It has had the least success in trying--often under deadlines imposed by the courts--to require pollution control measures that have implications for changes in lifestyles and land use patterns. These are changes that can take place only over a period of time. They entail very basic social and economic and environmental choices and trade offs that can only be made by the people involved through the political process at the State, local, and regional levels.

One of the major challenges to our society, and specifically to our States and localities, is to deal effectively with what might be called the issues of growth--the issues involved, for example, in trying to preserve and maintain air quality, to control nonpoint source water pollution, and to relate and reconcile different environmental concerns such as clean air and clean water with each other and with social and economic concerns such as housing, and jobs, and energy. These issues will involve an increasing shift in emphasis from the abatement to the prevention of pollution. In terms of technology, we need to seek over the coming years not simply to encourage the development of more sophisticated kinds of "add-on" controls, but to push as effectively as we can for basic changes in the processes themselves.

The Need for Preventive Action

As we move to put increasing emphasis upon the prevention as well as the control of pollution, there is a growing body of evidence that some of our most effective "health care" dollars may well be the "disease prevention" dollars we spend to cut and control pollution and other agents we introduce into our own environment. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services) a few years ago estimated that 88 percent of our total national health bill goes for cure and care rather than prevention. In a recent year we spent around $1 billion on research into cures and causes of cancer.

The National Cancer Institute has estimated that the actual cost of cancer to people amounts to tens of billions of dollars a year. Yet the World Health Organization has estimated from 60 to 90 percent of all cancer is the result of "environmental factors" in the broadest sense of that term. As the Forward Plan for Health prepared by HEW has stated: "In recent years, it has become clear that only by preventing disease from occurring, rather than treating it later, can we hope to achieve any major improvement in the Nation's health."

All of this has underscored the urgency of measures such as the Toxic Substances Control Act to give us better information and regulatory capacity for coping with the many new chemical compounds that we have been introducing into the commercial market each year. It also underscores the fact that the struggle against disease must increasingly be waged, not simply in the hospitals and the doctors' offices, but on our farms, in our factories, and in our personal lifestyles. And it suggests that, if--in the words of one medical authority--"environmental disease is becoming the disease of the century," then environmental protection, in the broadest sense of the phrase, must increasingly become the most important ingredient in any national health program.

If there have been doubts that "environment" is truly a global concern, and that all nations have a very real stake in the development of effective international efforts in any environmental protection and improvement, they should have been dispelled by the growing awareness of the international scope and seriousness of the pollution of the marine environment, the spread of chemical contaminants, the problem of acid rain, and the depletion of the layer of ozone that shields mankind from harmful solar rays by the release of fluorocarbons into the environment, among other problems. The build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels has enormous potential significance for global climate and world food production.

Sharing Control Technology

We can expect, in the years ahead, increasing pressures on EPA to share its know-how on pollution control with a developing world faced with extraordinary problems arising from population growth, food demand, and industrial development. The growing global demand for food will require us to establish a more precise policy on how best to control the global release of bioaccumulative, persistent pesticides. Developing nations will increasingly discover human health problems associated with the vast array of chemical compounds currently in use and under development. We will, as a result, face growing requests from developing countries for EPA experts to help in the establishment of environmental programs and to deal with specific environmental problems.

EPA can head into the 1980s with a clear sense of accomplishment and with a far better idea than we had ten years ago of the problems that we face and of the things we need to do.

EPA can take great pride in the fact that, faced with an extraordinarily complex array of issues and statutory mandates, it has put in place much of the regulatory machinery needed to ensure the eventual achievement of a sound and healthy environment for all.

I foresee a major challenge in the next year or two to our whole environmental protection system, particularly to the Clean Air Act. EPA should welcome constructive review. EPA should take the lead in seeking out and correcting cases of excessive or ill-founded regulation. EPA should, as I suggested earlier, be innovative and open in finding ways to expedite environmental decision-making, such as is involved in the siting of plants and other facilities.

I have always believed that we need greater room for administrative flexibility and the exercise of discretion--always subject to active Congressional oversight--in the implementation of environmental statutes. But our society must firmly resist efforts to roll back our historic environmental protection achievements. We must never forget that a healthy environment and the continued healthy functioning of the natural systems of the Earth are the foundations upon which all human activity, progress, and welfare must ultimately depend.

EPA has a proud and vital mission. Environmental problems are world-wide. They can be expected to become tougher rather than easier. The World Conservation Strategy developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature with World Wildlife Fund support and the Global 2000 Report of the Council on Environmental Quality help outline the problems, set priorities, and recommend national and international action strategies. The United States must undertake a leadership role in addressing these issues worldwide, and EPA must assume a major part in that critical task.

Train was EPA's second Administrator and was at the time of this writing President of the World Wildlife Fund, U.S.