The Next Decade: An Interview With Douglas M. Costle

[EPA Journal - Nov./Dec. 1980]

Q: With a new Administration coming to Washington in a few weeks, do you feel the role and mission of EPA will undergo major changes in the next four years?

A: I believe it's important to remember that the mission of EPA is directly tied to a number of very real environmental problems facing this country. Those problems will remain, as will the challenge to find constructive solutions.

The new Administration undoubtedly will have new approaches and new policies for dealing with environmental issues. In addition, there probably will be revisions to some environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act, which will dictate new directions for the Agency.

But I am hopeful that the fundamental philosophy of protecting environmental values will remain steadfast.

Q: What have the taxpayers received with the approximately $40 billion of their money spent by EPA since it was created ten years ago?

A: The bulk of that money, obviously, is in the construction grant program where EPA is helping subsidize the construction of municipal waste treatment plants all across the country. There are now almost 12,000 projects at various stages of completion. Where they've been completed, we've seen a dramatic improvement in water quality.

There have been concomitant gains in air as well, though it's harder to show the results. From 1972-1978 ambient levels of particulates (smoke and dust) were reduced 10 percent, sulfur dioxide by 17 percent, carbon monoxide by 35 percent, and lead by 26 percent. Ozone levels remained essentially stable over this period with 1979 showing a 3 percent decrease from 1978 levels. In the case of automobile related pollution, the reductions have occurred in the face of a 33 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled.

The job is being done both at the public and private levels, of course. The Department of Commerce has estimated that the business sector spent about $160 billion (in 1980 dollars) during 1972-78 for pollution cleanup.

So what I think the American people have gotten is a pretty solid initial achievement in reversing the environmental degradation that was seriously getting out of hand ten years ago.

Q: Will EPA be needed for another ten years?

A: EPA will be needed well into our future. As we have begun aggressively dealing with pollution, we're discovering a whole generation of environmental problems, mostly related to the legacies of the chemical revolution, whether it's dump sites, hazardous waste disposal, our increasing knowledge of the potential chronic health effects of exposure to chemicals, or contamination of groundwater. We've also made a start in focusing on hazardous air pollutants.

Q: Suppose they had decided not to create a federal EPA ten years ago. Where do you think we'd be today?

A: I don't think that that was an option. Things had gotten so bad.

One thing to remember is that Congress usually acts to mobilize the Government's efforts well after the need for it has become apparent. It usually takes a crisis atmosphere to get them to act, and it usually comes on the heels of demand for more and better Government action. Because of the public and Congressional recognition of the environmental problem, I believe if we hadn't created an EPA, we would have had something like it.

Q: Would you say the most difficult task in cleaning up has been substantially accomplished?

A: Yes, in terms of the most conventional pollutants that we were preoccupied with ten years ago--in water that's oxygen-demanding wastes, suspended solids, etc., and in air it's particulates, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide. I'd say in water we have more than turned the corner. In air, it has been harder, and the gains there have been more hard fought and less dramatic.

But, even as we've progressed, a whole new set of issues has arisen--toxic pollutants in the water and in the groundwater, in landfills, in the air, the legacy of the chemical revolution.

The science of solving these problems is much more uncertain and our learning curve is very steep, both in terms of the effects of these pollutants, as well as the kinds of technologies that will be required to reduce the burdens that we're putting on our air, water, land, and ultimately, on human health.

Q: On the proposed revitalization of the Nation's infrastructure, the industry and highways, etc., do you think there are useful opportunities there for environmental improvement?

A: Oh, absolutely. To the extent that we are going to rebuild and modernize industry, it gives us a real opportunity to do it right, just as when we now build a new power plant, it is built with the best available control technology. In fact, I was told by one representative from an Indiana power company that they have a 2,000-megawatt power plant that today is cleaner than a 200-megawatt power plant not 40 miles away. That 2,000-megawatt power plant is a new plant, built with scrubbers. It shows you what can be done when you have an opportunity to build right.

Similarly with new steel-making processes, and virtually every industry you can name, when you modernize or replace an obsolete plant, you have an opportunity to include controls that will turn out by and large to be more cost effective because you get productivity gains from the new plant. Including controls in modernization will be far more cost effective than going back and trying to retrofit older plants and, technologically, easier than trying to go back where you've got to work around old plumbing.

So when you look at some of our basic industries--particularly industries that are dirty, using inherently dirty processes--you almost without exception get substantial gains by replacement with modern plants--substantial gains in environmental protection. It's just clear that this time around, as we build our industrial base, it would be an incredible failure of political foresight to not do it right, and that means solving not just the community pollution problem, but occupational safety and health problems as well.

Q: Can you cite some examples where doing it right in the first place could have avoided environmental damage and saved a lot of money?

A: Yes. Here are three:

  • the chemical waste dumped into Love Canal could have been secured in an environmentally sound landfill for $4 million; instead, the State and Federal Governments will have to spend more than $50 million to contain that mess; lawsuits pending against Hooker Chemical run into the billions; and the lives of nearly 1,000 families have been scarred--in some cases, permanently.

  • Similarly, PCBs illegally sprayed along North Carolina roadsides by a "midnight dumper" cold have been disposed of safely for $100,000; instead, the State may have to spend between $2 and $12 million...and the dumpers, now bankrupt, have gone to jail.

  • The Kepone disaster at Hopewell, Va., could have been prevented by an investment at the Life Sciences plant of $200,000. So far, known judgments against the company--paid by Allied Chemical--total $13 million; payments to workers for nerve damage in out-of-court settlements are unknown; and it is doubtful whether a Federal investment of several billion dollars could suffice to clean up the James River and its once-thriving shellfish industry.

Q: What will be the most useful role a citizen can play in the future to help prevent environmental degradation?

A: While we'll continue to fight a lot of battles in Washington, particularly when it comes to setting national standards, the real environmental battles are in the local trenches, where new factories are being built and new power plants are being sited. There, the insistence of local people that it be done right, and that they be built as clean as possible is crucial. The fastest way to an informed citizenry is participation by that citizenry in decisions that affect them, that are important to their own lives. So I think that involvement, that is, getting involved in local issues, is still the most important thing citizens can do, because that is self-educating and has a direct bearing on the outcome of their own lives. It's tangible. It's not like trying to follow a debate 2,000 miles away in the halls of Congress.

The second most important thing will be to continually impress upon the politicians they elect, whether it's County Councils or Governors or Congress, that environmental protection is very much a part of our political value system now. There is growing pressure from organized interests to resist the imposition of environmental laws, and it is a more organized and financially backed effort than existed ten years ago.

Frankly, the elected representatives will bear a substantial part of the burden of resisting incursions by narrow, special interests in the area of environmental protection, and they can only do that if they feel the people who sent them to office in the first place really care and are watching how they behave. Sounds like Civics 1, but it's true. And I think, incidentally, that it's going to happen that way because, when I look at the polls, in the most recent polls, particularly, I see, not only a growth in the number of people who are concerned and car about environmental protection, but I also see that it cuts across the political spectrum. You find it from conservatives, liberals, and progressives.

When you look at the demographics of those polls, they indicate how young people feel. These are young people who will be taking over our institutions as time goes on, and they care even more intensely than the [generation] that they will succeed. Environmental protection is bedrock in their political values. In terms of fundamental change in our political value system, environmental concern has basically taken hold now, and that's an irresistible political phenomenon.

Q: Do you think state and local government will assume a more significant role in environmental protection?

A: Oh, I think they are even now. The bulk of the laws that were passed in the decade of the 1970s contemplated a partnership between Federal, State, and local government, with State and local government having a pivotal role. The municipalities are building the waste treatment plants. State governments are regulating pollution sources across the board.

We come back to the basic reality that EPA does not by itself have anywhere near adequate numbers of people and resources to go out and do the job itself. We have to rely on amplifying those resources through State and local government.

One other comment on this. One of the things we've tried to do, obviously since the Agency started, was to support the development of strong environmental programs at the State and local level, and then, as those programs reach maturity, delegate more authority and responsibility, too. Nowhere is that more clear than in the water program and construction grants, where we're going through a transition of delegating more and more responsibility to State and local government. With that delegation, of course, comes political accountability, which ties back to what I said earlier about the need for local people to become involved because they can hold State government accountable even more readily than they can hold a distant national government accountable.

Q: Would you comment on the recent trip you took down the Colorado River? Did it give you any insights or inspiration?

A: It reminded me that there is a lot of open country left, but even so, it's feeling pressure from man's intrusion. The area I visited is very close to that which will be subjected to intense energy development pressure. I drove through the Piceance Creek area on my way up to Dinosaur National Monument, and there is a fragile character to the ecology of that region. It will take real determination and judgment to ensure that that area is not ruined in the process of developing energy resources. There is a lot that can be done that will mitigate the effects of industrial development.

My trip reminded me of how magnificent some of the country is in terms of just sheer grandeur. That trip included several days in the Colorado Rockies and down to Dinosaur which is at an entirely different elevation. Of course, in that region the ecology changes dramatically with every few thousand feet of elevation, and there is suddenly very barren, rugged country in parts of Utah, after the very lush mountains in Colorado, and then as you climb another thousand feet out of the Dinosaur area, you find yourself suddenly in the Flaming Gorge National Recreational Area which is all mountain land again, and then you drop down in elevation past sagebrush country, vast expanses of it.

Then, as you move north to the Teton Mountains, you rise in elevation again; you see Bridger Range that's converging right there close to Jackson Hole, and then you're in that magnificent area, the Bridger Park National Forest, Grand Teton National Park, and Yellowstone National Park which represents about 20,000 square miles now that are contiguous in one way or another--land running everywhere from fairly well-developed parks that get a lot of visitor pressure to real wilderness areas that very few people ever set foot in. It is a magnificent national heritage for this country. And then we drove back to Denver. So in that loop, we really captured what is unique about the West--the thing that struck me so forcefully is the diversity even in that fairly limited piece of geography.

The area near Dinosaur is rich in history. It is right between Robber's Roost and Hole in the Wall, which is where Butch Cassidy and his gang used to hang out. Then, coming back from Yellowstone and the Tetons, you go through the Overland Stage Route across the sagebrush plains, then through Bridger and Laramie and down to Fort Collins. That is an area that is going to be stressed by energy development, and we're going to have to be very careful that we're not going to lose the essential uniqueness of that area and its historical and natural resource heritage.

Q: Would you comment on what you think are the most serious international environmental problems?

A: Probably the most serious problem is that we lack sufficiently developed international institutions for resolving problems that are here and now. We're increasingly finding that environmental problems are transnational in character. Air pollution is one example. Pollution of the oceans is clearly multinational and transnational in scope. In a sense we live on a shrinking globe with the actions of one nation impinging on another and possibly impinging on an international resource. Our international institutions often appear terribly sluggish in trying to cope with these concerns. It took six years really to debate and discuss and get to the point where last year we could sign an international convention for the first time to deal with trans-boundary air pollution.

Now we see a lot of regional international efforts to deal with water quality. Mediterranean nations, for example, have banded together in an explicit program to begin to clean up water pollution in the Mediterranean that threatens the sea. I think nations are responding to the threat of environmental degradation, but it seems, oftentimes, a slow process, and we are at the same time discovering specific problems--chlorofluorocarbons, trans-boundary air pollution, the longer range problem of carbon dioxide buildup, the greenhouse effect, desertification and loss of tropical forests.

There has been a ening of global awareness. Attitudes have changed since the 1972 Stockholm Conference, where environmental protection was a preoccupation of the industrial nation that were trying to fight their way through polluted air to get to work or had lost the ability to use water for recreation. Now even developing nations are realizing there are serious environmental problems associated with development, and there's just a growing sensitivity, and I think, as time goes on, a growing impatience with the pace of international institutions in trying to solve real problems in time.

In the last ten years an international network of scientists has grown up who are worrying about and wrestling with environmental problems, and they talk to one another, and it cuts across traditional political boundaries between East and West. I think that's a very healthy sign. We now have bilateral agreements with China, as well as the Soviet Union, Poland, and, of course, with many of the Western nations.

We're in the process of establishing agreements now with a range of developing nations in areas such as Latin America and Africa. Richard Dowd, EPA's Science Advisor, recently returned from a visit to several African nations with which we have bi-lateral relations, all of whom expressed a very particular interest in developing stronger relationships on environmental issues. The developing nations most acutely feel environmental problems where natural resource systems on which they rely for survival are threatened in some way by desertification, pollution, etc.

The problems vary around the globe in terms of what's on the top of a particular nation's agenda. But there is a growing awareness and there is a growing list of environmental problems, as well as concerned public opinion. I think global environmental affairs will move increasingly to a more prominent place on the international geo-political agenda.

Q: How would you rate EPA's overall performance?

A: We've have to rate it pretty good. In terms of an institution that has influenced our lives in a very significant way in a very short period of time, it's probably had an extraordinary impact. The greatest impact will be felt in the future as the standards we've adopted, the technologies that we are forcing to be put in place have a real effect on the air, water, and land.

As an institution, EPA has gone through as steep a learning curve as any institution that government has ever had. When you think about it, ten years ago our knowledge about these problems was pretty thin, and we started with a very anemic intellectual bank account. When I compare where we were ten years ago with where we are today, I see a remarkable growth in our ability to do the job.

But I still see a very steep curve ahead of us, in part because of the changing nature of the problems we're dealing with; in part, because our sense of the adequacy of the tools we have is changing.

We have not yet reached a plateau. And our growing knowledge of environmental issues and the changing environmental problems will be the most important source of institutional renewal for EPA. I don't see this institution ever going to sleep. I could see it being politically put to sleep, but I think it's a dynamic, alive place to be intellectually and in terms of working with people who have a real sense of purpose and intelligence about these problems.

Another important facet is that the Agency is doing its homework better and is able to handle its mission, in general more effectively than it was ten years ago. So I think that EPA has been maturing as well in terms of the quality of its analysis and its policymaking.

Q: What is the most significant environmental achievement in the last decade?

A: Building environmental protection into our political values system with the institutional capacity to deal with the problem--that is really the bottom line of environmental efforts in this past decade.

Q: What are the biggest jobs that are going to be facing EPA over the next ten years?

A: Coming to grips with the legacy of the chemical revolution. It will be made all the more difficult because our knowledge is not expanding at a rate that is exactly commensurate with the demand for us to take action. That is, there are still going to be potholes in our knowledge of science in issues, which will make some of the policy dilemmas very acute. The other challenge will be to be flexible, to reassess the tools that we have to get the job done, to be sure that we're using the most appropriate, innovative mix to get the job done. That will mean refining and improving the tools that we use. The more rigid the approach, the more likely will the results be limited over any period of time.

Q: How is EPA doing in the face of pressure to compromise environmental programs to make way for industry?

A: I think we've been doing pretty well. To sum it up is very difficult because these tradeoffs are rarely black and white. A good example is the steel industry, where they simply don't have enough capital to both modernize and complete the environmental job they've started, and there's a statutory deadline, and it's forcing them to make capital decisions right now. Modernization is one of the ways they can clean up, of course, but, if they are forced to have the pollution cleanup job completed at every single facility by 1982, in air, for example, then they would have to invest a substantial amount to retrofit old facilities. That money could be better spent on modernizing. It would update the steelmaking facilities and improve the environment, too.

So, what it boils down to, in terms of maintaining the environmental standards, is that we've done very well in demonstrating flexibility on how those standards are met in the most cost effective way.

And we haven't been afraid to step up and reassess the standards themselves and make our decisions to modify them if data do not exist to support the standards originally set. One of the things that my predecessors told me was that, in a way, the Agency job during my tenure was going to be more difficult because a lot of the initial standards that were set were based upon pretty sketchy scientific underpinning. It was the best that was available, and they did the best job they could with what was available.

When that scientific data base got filled in, it would mean making adjustments. Some would be toward more strict standards. In other instances, it would be toward relaxing standards that were too strict when they were initially set. I think the fastest way to obsolescence is rigid adherence to past conventional wisdom, when you have new knowledge and new facts that have eroded the underpinnings of those initial decisions. Put very simply, this Agency cannot afford to be afraid to change its mind when facts warrant it. Failure to have that kind of flexibility will tend to make it less and less relevant to a changing world.

Q: Is there an anti-regulation backlash that could hurt environmental cleanup efforts?

A: There's been a real build-up in the anti-regulation rhetoric in this country. But there was an interesting poll published in the New York Times. It was done by Union Carbide, who asked people if they thought standards were too strict or not strict enough. A series of questions was asked about occupational exposures to cancer-causing chemicals. Seventy percent of the people in that poll said they thought that standards should be more strict.

The poll covered a whole list of concerns. For example, 60 percent of those polled thought that water cleanup rules should be stricter, 65 percent wanted stricter controls on consumer products that could cause diseases such as cancer, and 70 percent favored a tightening of regulations to protect workers from on-the-job health risks. Those surveyed held these opinions even though they agreed that each of these types of regulation increase consumer costs.

We see these poll results in support of the environment in spite of the fact that the general public reaction is that we have too much regulation. Part of it is that there has been a growing frenzy about regulation which got somehow detached from the facts, a fear that environmental cleanup is hurting the economy. In fact, environmental expenditures will add something like 0.1 percentage points to the consumer price index this year. So we can hardly be said to be causing inflation. And that is before you even try to quantify the environmental benefits that--I'm convinced--offset by a wide margin the costs that are imposed.

We have created far more jobs than we cost the economy. Figures still show that the unemployment rate would be 0.4 percentage points higher were it not for environmental expenditures. And there are all kinds of benefits that we can't calculate yet in terms of more efficient use of raw materials, less waste of resources, as well as more sophisticated, subtle determinations of the effects of pollution on public health in terms of morbidity and mortality.

We'll have a much more sophisticated understanding of the benefits of cleanup efforts as time goes by. Look at the effect we have on capital spending plans in this country. On the average, environmental spending next year for U.S. industry, measured as a percent of capital expenditure, will amount to something on the order of 3.9 percent, which is pretty modest. Now that figure masks the fact that in certain industries the percentage is much higher. Steel is a good example: it will run maybe about 20 percent. But that is an anomaly in a way. That is a very dirty industry with a huge capital investment to make, and in some respects the steepest hill to climb in a relatively short period of time.

The concerns I have is that the problems of a steel industry will warp the general public's perception of the effects of environmental requirements on industry as a whole. The story there is really much better than people tend to recognize, given the anti-regulatory rhetoric that they're exposed to every day. In fact, 92 percent of the major sources of industrial pollution in this country are in compliance with the initial requirements of the Clean Air and Clean Water Act or are meeting our timetables. The sure expectation at this pont is that they'll complete the job. And that's a major success story.

In comparison to other nations that make environmental expenditures, the Japanese steel industry not only outspent us for environmental protection, but outspent us for modernization as well. And they did this during the of the 1974-1975 recession.

So, the facts just don't support the generalized accusation that regulation, whether it's environmental occupational safety and health, is at the root of our economy's problem. That has tended to be political hyperbole. I think increasingly that the issue of reindustrialization will focus on a whole range of concerns, not the least of which will be quality in corporate management--I think that'll become an issue in the 1980s.

And look again at the demographics. The generation of Americans coming along now will be the politically dominant influence.

And it is not a generation that's about to walk away from the new social contract in effect that Congress legislated, whether it's in consumer safety or environmental protection or occupational safety.

This interview was conducted in 1980 by Charles Pierce, Editor, EPA Journal; Truman Temple, Associate Editor; and John Heritage, Managing Editor.