Looking Back, Looking Ahead: EPA

by William D. Ruckelshaus
[EPA Journal - Jan./Feb. 1990]

As we observe the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, it may be constructive to look back to the origins of EPA 20 years ago in order to gain perspective on the nature of the environmental issue today and to explore what the future may hold for EPA and the country.

Born in the wake of the first Earth Day, EPA opened its doors in downtown Washington, DC, on December 2, 1970. For the first time, concern about environmental pollution was elevated to a national issue. The causes of this sudden escalation of the environment to the national scene were many and varied.

For one thing, color television saturated American living rooms, and the visible effect of a yellow outfall flowing into a blue river, or brown smog against a bright blue sky was far more impressive that those same images in black and white. On our newly colored TV screens, we saw spaceships heading for the moon, and the subsequent photographs of our planet--looking so small and vulnerable in the firmament--gave us a sense of our limits and a concern about exceeding them.

It was no accident that our ened environmental concerns coincided with an unpopular war in Southeast Asia. The impact of the Vietnam War on America was dramatic and tore at our spirit and our sense of ourselves. Many became persuaded that a country that seemed to care so little for life in a far-off land might also ignore the environmental underpinning of life here at home. Modern environmentalism in America has always had a certain spiritual quality about it. I believe the coincidence of its rise with the Vietnam War both defined and contributed to that quality.

Certainly in the 1960s, America had environmental problems. Gross pollution problems abounded. Raw sewage and industrial discharges spoiling our rivers were more the rule than the exception. Air pollution from mobile and stationary sources was far more intense on a per-capita basis than today. The toxic waste issues that have dominated the headlines in the last decade were there in the '60s, but we were focused on the problems we could smell, touch and feel: the problems that television loved and our senses attested to on the way to work every morning.

In the late '60s, the public reacted to these problems by organizing and putting pressure on the political system, and as always, the politicians responded. What ensued was the creation of the Council on Environmental Quality and EPA at the national level. Similar agencies were created in states all over America. A cascade of environmental laws and regulations followed.

Like few other public issues in our history, the environment has drawn a high level of public awareness and commitment from the day EPA began to the present. Public opinion polls over the years have shown the consistency of the public's concern for a safe and clean environment. Events in the latter half of the 1980s have served to raise that concern to even higher levels. And today, once again, we are experiencing a strong, predictable political response.

The resurgence of public concern for the environment resulted from the emergence of new environmental issues during the 1988 presidential election. Publicity about global warming in the summer of 1988, coupled with intense heat and drought, followed by the television-recorded images of medical waste closing beaches from coast to coast was made more than the public or the politicians could bear. For the first time in the history of this country, the environment became a key issue in a presidential campaign. In 1988, the environmental records of the two major candidates were debated throughout the country--from a heaving ship in Boston Harbor to an abandoned Superfund site in New Jersey. Both candidates made major speeches about the environment and featured one another's environmental past in their television ads.

Nor is the environment strictly an American phenomenon. Green politics have emerged from minority status and become a political movement to be reckoned with in countries throughout Europe. Such events as the massive destruction that resulted from a chemical spill on the Rhine River and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl only served to bolster the emergence of the Greens. Even in the Soviet Union and the rest of newly enfranchised Eastern Europe, the public has demanded more environmental protection, and the leaders are beginning to respond.

EPA sits in the middle of this new awareness and increased demand for action. Like it or not, EPA is the repository for this nation's hope, concerns, and frustrations about the environment. How can and should EPA respond to the new forces that buffet it on all sides reflecting the ever-changing concerns of the public, the Congress, or the special interest groups? What are its responsibilities in the decade to come? What are the responsibilities of other institutions in our society that affect environmental policy? The answers will determine how effectively our country and the rest of the world respond to the increased demand for action on the new environmental agenda.

Without question, today's EPA is far different than it was in 1970. It is more mature. It is more focused on public health than it was 20 years ago. EPA is more seasoned, more bureaucratic, but in my view, no less committed than it was in the heady days of the early 70s.

Despite that commitment, I have concerns about the future of EPA. The turmoil of the early '80s left some deep and abiding scars on the Agency. It affected EPA's ability to interact effectively with Congress in defining its mission and goals. The scandals broke the fragile ties of trust that must exist between an entity like EPA and the public if the Agency's judgments are to be trusted and the Agency itself is to remain self-confident. Both public trust and a self-confident EPA are necessary ingredients for true environmental progress.

In addition, the turmoil--and the high degree of politicization attendant to it--has resulted in a stridency and bitterness in the environmental debate that was unheard of in the '70s. Too often the focal point of public and political rancor is EPA. Congress, environmental groups, and industry, pursuing their own agendas, have engaged in "EPA bashing" on a wide scale. That has contributed to the further erosion of trust in the Agency, and in recent times has led to highly dedicated civil servants leaving government service.

As the Agency became an inviting and vulnerable public target, it attracted the inevitable legislative response. The history of environmental legislation in the '80s is characterized by a singular lack of trust in EPA by Congress. That is manifested in increasingly prescriptive legislation that strips away administrative discretion from EPA managers and often sets impossible goals for the Agency. These goals may gain political mileage, but their extreme nature ensures practical failure. The result has been missed deadlines, unfulfilled promises of purity, failure to achieve goals, another round of EPA bashing, followed by even more stringent goals; and the spiral of mistrust continues.

What is so remarkable about all this is that EPA, when given well-defined, realistic goals and adequate resources, performs as well as, if not better than, other institutions of government. If you look back over the 20 years of EPA's existence, the progress made in cleaning up the gross pollution problems of the past and addressing the more difficult issues of toxic pollution of today is quite impressive. Of course, there have been missteps; certainly not eery reasonable goal has been achieved, but overall the record on the environment in America is as good as, and probably better, than anywhere in the world.

Just imagine the condition of our harbors and rivers had we not embarked on the sewage treatment program of the '70s and the vigorous enforcement of the Clean Water Act in the '80s. Imagine the skies over our major cities had we not aggressively implemented the Clean Air Act, controlling both smokestack emissions and severely restricting automobile pollution. One of the major health threats to our society--airborne lead--has now been virtually eliminated. We should take pride in the fact that we have been able to achieve these gains. These precedents should give us confidence that the new issues that confront us--toxics and acid rain, and the planetary problems of ozone depletion and global warming--can be effectively addressed by our government, given proper direction and incentives.

Any doubt concerning America's progress on the environmental front may quickly be erased with the purchase of a few plane tickets. My travels as a member of the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development during the '80s took me to any number of Third World countries where the environmental problems make ours pale into insignificance. In Latin America, Africa, and Asia, the pollution problems are so fundamental, so massive, and so pervasive in every aspect of human life as almost to defy description. While that should not deter us from addressing our continuing environmental problems in this country, it should show us how much we have achieved and provide us with the confidence to allocate more wisely our resources for environmental improvement in the future.

To achieve that wise allocation, and consider what to do next, we need to lower the decibel level of environmental rhetoric in this country. The bitterness and anger that have characterized the debate in recent years represent something new, something we didn't have in the late '60s and early '70s, and it ought to end. There must be room in the America of the '90s to debate these issues and disagree about solutions to problems without the participants being dismissed as "tree-huggers" or "industry stooges."

We need to address the increasing inability of our political processes to make final decisions about needed facilities for the disposal of waste in our society. Regardless of the merits of public participation in environmental decisions, the "not-in-my-backyard" (NIMBY) syndrome is here to stay. We need to institute processes that come to an end, that provide closure, that ensure the finality of decision-making without sacrificing the quality of decisions. To maintain the status quo is to ensure gridlock.

EPA must re-enter the fray: EPA must re-assert itself and help define the environmental agenda for the future and set realistic goals. This alone could lead to a far more efficient allocation of what necessarily will be inadequate resources, and ultimately a re-establishment of trust in EPA by the public.

The process of setting these goals needs to be based on a solid scientific understanding of the problems we face, a thorough and objective review of the solutions that are available, and a realistic assessment of the costs of each of those solutions. A very open goal-setting process will lead to a greater public understanding and acceptance of the goals that are set and the solutions chosen.

Right now the Agency, according to its own analysis, is spending an enormous amount of its precious resources to control environmental hazards that pose relatively small risks to our society. At the same time, many known environmental hazards are barely addressed because of the low priority for them dictated by Congress. Some would say the answer is to give EPA more money. The Agency may need increased resources, but the fact is there will always be problems waiting when those of higher priority are brought under social control.

As with all problems facing our society, today's reality in Washington is one of limited resources, and choices must be made by EPA, like everyone else. Congress, working with the EPA comparative risk analysis already available, must thoroughly re-examine the existing allocation of resources in terms of real health and environmental priorities. Surely the current disconnect between Congressionally allocated resources and priorities to be addressed can be remedied. It is in the best interest of EPA, the environment, and the country to do so.

As environmental demands increase in breadth and depth, allocating resources will become in increasingly larger challenge for all our elected leaders. Let me give you an example. A major chemical company, as a result of its SARA Title III chemical emissions report, has decided to reduce those emissions by more than 90 percent by 1992. That decision will cost the company almost $200 million. The company has estimated that if all industrial concerns in this country undertook the same control program, the total cost would approach $20 billion.

Recently, when I asked the senior scientists and engineers of the firm whether they honestly believed that a significant public health improvement would result from that action, they answered no. Their action stemmed from a combination of public spiritedness, enlightened self-interest, and a desire to be out of the line of fire. The point was not whether reducing those emissions of chemicals is a good or bad thing. In a world of limitless resources, it is probably something worth doing. But in a society faced with real and hard choices about resource allocations, is this the best way to spend $200 million or $20 billion to serve public health? I doubt it.

These kinds of choices are being made by institutions and individuals in our society every day. The choices often involve the commitment of resources against one devil at the expense of a more formidable one. The dynamics of the choices made are driven by a combination of public opinion, Congressional legislative reaction, and EPA implementation--the process that generates public policy. EPA cannot escape responsibility for the human health or environmental implications of the policies or the choices made as a result of that process. The failure to help society understand where its best interests lie is no less because "Congress made me do it."

That is where EPA's role as educator is important. More knowledge about public health or environmental risks exists within EPA than anywhere else. That knowledge must be shared. It should be shouted from every podium or forum available in the hopes that wiser policy will result.

People need to know what their Agency is doing and why, and what the intended or expected result will be. That shared knowledge builds trust and leads to real environmental improvement. One of the most useful Agency initiatives in recent years took place in Tacoma, Washington, in the mid-1980s. EPA undertook a massive educational effort to make sure that the community understood the risks associated with the continued operation of a local copper smelter, how those risks would be reduced by various control options, and what the true impact of those various options would be on the continued operation of the smelter--and thus on the community itself. That exercise proved, very dramatically, that when fully armed with all the facts of a situation, the public can and will make rational, intelligent decisions about the environment and the future course of human lives.

At the end of the educational process, people from all sides of the debate--environmentalists, smelter workers, community leaders--were all sporting buttons that read "BOTH." The buttons meant that the environmental risks inherent in the operation of the smelter could be controlled to acceptable levels, and the community would still have the economic benefit of that smelter. In other words, they could have "BOTH."

We must constantly strive to make our process of dealing with environmental risks more realistic, efficient, and effective. If for no other reason, let's do it to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. Our nation and the world are faced with major environmental challenges for the future. There is broad and intensified interest in the environment. There is increased demand to achieve greater levels of cleanup of the problems we know about. At the same time, there is scientific evidence of new and potentially serious environmental problems yet unaddressed.

Increased public pressure is not restricted to the industrial world. Certainly, it is very intense and immediate here in the United States, but in the future, the greatest pressure on the developed world and on the environment is going to come from the four-fifths of the world's population in the underdeveloped and developing countries yearning to approximate the standard of living now enjoyed by us. Unchannelled and uncontrolled, that inexorable push to economic development will create an assault on our environment the likes of which we have never seen.

How the developed nations, and how we as a leader of those nations, respond to our own challenges--and the path we set for the rest of the world--will say much about what kind of world will be left to coming generations. Ultimately, what is at stake in free societies and those now throwing off the shackles of 40 years, is the ability of free institutions to solve these difficult, complex, and emotionally wrenching problems. The emerging democracies are watching us, as are the vast populations in the underdeveloped world. They want to see if we can cope with our own complexities and do it within the context of freedom. If we can, our dedication to freedom will seem increasingly attractive to them as they struggle for an enhanced standard of living.

The question for us really isn't whether humanity will survive our environmental assaults. I think we will. The question is whether free institutions will survive.

When confronted with a choice between authoritarianism and chaos, people will always choose the former. Whether we can address our environmental problems within a system of political and economic freedom is an open question in the last decade of this century. Is freedom indeed the banner to which all should repair? Certainly that is the world's question and our challenge. At the next observance of Earth Day, perhaps in 20 years, I hope we can celebrate the success of attaining a livable environment, enhanced development, and expanded freedom.