Past, Present, and Future: An Interview with Lee M. Thomas

[EPA Journal - November 1985]

For this special issue, the EPA Journal interviewed Lee M. Thomas, the agency's Administrator. In the interview, he comments on major issues facing EPA and assesses the agency at this point in its history:

Q: In your opinion, what's the most important thing EPA has accomplished in its first 15 years?

A: We've established a focal point where the environment can be monitored, analyzed, controlled, and gradually upgraded, and we have devised means to ensure strict enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. We have achieved very gratifying results in reducing air and water pollution over the past decade and a half, and there is doubtless more to come.

Q: The major gains have been in control of conventional pollutants. Do you think the agency has essentially completed the job of dealing with this problem?

A: No. We've made significant progress in that area, but much remains to be done. I still spend a considerable amount of time on standards for conventional pollutants.

Q: Are toxic chemicals the major challenge that the agency faces now?

A: The toxics issue has evolved rapidly in recent years. That is reflected in the kind of authorities that the agency has been given to manage it, such as TSCA, RCRA, Superfund--all reflecting public demand for swift, effective action. EPA's overall emphasis on toxics has intensified during the 1980s.

Q: Looking back over the last 15 years, do you think that industry has become more cooperative in environmental cleanup than it once was?

A: Industry is certainly more reflective and sophisticated today. Environmental regulation is seen as an inescapable part of the cost of doing business. Industry no longer fights regulation on principle. The attitude today is "How do we make it work?"

Q: The Bhopal incident last December has heightened citizen awareness of toxics in this country. Will this publicity make it easier for EPA to do its job?

A: It could make it more difficult, not less. I don't think you need to increase public awareness in order to get support for environmental protection. The people have long made it clear that they want clean air and water. They don't want pesticides in their food. They don't want their children's health to be jeopardized by toxics. But an incident like Bhopal can encourage a tendency to demand quick solutions to complex problems. The public's tolerance for ambiguity, delay, and frustration is very limited. The notion of relative risk is not appreciated when you are downwind from a major perceived peril.

Q: Do you think society is overreacting to the health risk from toxic chemicals and carcinogens?

A: Generally I would say that there is no overreaction because the threat to health and environment is real. On the other hand, there is little understanding about the risks versus the benefits of various substances. Moreover, people have an unrealistic idea of how much government can do to reduce the overall risk of death and illness. The biggest health payoff comes from modifying destructive personal habits like smoking, eating junk food, driving without a safety belt, and so on.

Q: What should EPA's role be in educating the public about environmental problems?

A: EPA has a significant role, one we should expand. I think the public needs a greater awareness of the emerging challenges and what EPA is doing to anticipate them, where the environmental dollar can be invested for the biggest payoff, et cetera. Our information programs should be site-specific when necessary, so that a community affected by a hazardous waste dump, say, gets a clear picture of the control strategy's purpose, time-frame, costs, benefits, and limitations.

Q: Turning that around, does the public have any role in helping EPA assess risks and make decisions?

A: People should come forward immediately and tell us what they know about pollution problems. The average person can often provide critical information that is available nowhere else. We need to hear what citizens have to say, so we should solicit their help.

Q: What would you say has been the biggest environmental "surprise," good or bad, over the last couple of decades?

A: I would say the sheer pervasiveness of hazardous waste contamination. Even the experts didn't anticipate a problem of such magnitude as we are now addressing under Superfund and RCRA. There was only an inkling of that 20 years ago. The evidence for a major threat to public health emerged within the 15-year lifetime of EPA. And only during the last five years did we begin to appreciate the immensity of the cleanup task ahead of us.

Q: It used to be said when EPA was first set up that EPA employees have a unique relationship to their agency. Is this still true?

A: Yes, emphatically. Most EPA staff regard environmental protection and restoration as a sacred trust and a necessity for the survival of the nation, if not the planet. They see the goals of EPA as consistent with their own personal values and objectives. So their identification with the agency is stronger than it might be elsewhere. I take great pride in this allegiance.

Q: What is EPA's greatest strength, as you see it?

A: It's our administrative and psychological maturity. We have come through some tough times. We have learned from our mistakes over the last 15 years. We recognize as never before the urgency of balancing our various environmental control responsibilities, and pursuing them within the context of economic growth and having to compete in the global marketplace.

Q: When do you think that the acid rain problem will move from the research stage to the action stage?

A: I don't regard the current phase as either research or action but rather as both. Under the Clean Air Act, we're reducing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone--all of these have been characterized as precursors of acid rain. During the brief time I've been administrator we have promulgated nitrogen-oxide standards for heavy-duty trucks. We are developing an ozone-attainment strategy for 1987, and we have announced tall-stack regulations to control the dispersal of sulfur dioxide. These measures will probably have a significant impact on acid rain.

Our research program is very aggressive and has expanded dramatically over the last two years. It will provide the additional information we need on the causes of acidification in lakes and streams and on whether the problem is accelerating. We are trying to determine how much of the damage to forests is manmade and how much is natural. If we can identify the sources of acid precipitation--dry and wet--we may be able to devise control measures. So we are operating a two-track system: control plus research.

Now the question is what additional controls we may need and where to apply them. It's hard to say when our research program will provide the final word. During the next two to three years a lot of new data will come on-line, and I hope we can use them to determine potential solutions.

Q: What would you most like to accomplish as Administrator?

A: I would like to be able to look back four years from now and point to significant environmental results in each major program area. And I would hope these gains would continue and be built upon by my successors: for example, systematic improvements in long-range planning, in defining results, and in the selection, training, and advancement of people within this agency.

Q: What's the hardest part of your job?

A: Clarifying complex scientific policy, program, and legal issues and then choosing between options of apparently equal merit. It's a challenge to find out what is going on, what the hidden issues are, where the levers of power are located, and then persuade people to stick to their decisions, and yet be adaptable. Critics used to say that bureaucracy is hungry for power, but I think too many of us would rather avoid responsibility than seek it.

Q: Can EPA do its job on its current budget?

A: During the last two years the budget has grown substantially, and approximately the same level of resources will probably be available in the years immediately ahead. I'm confident we have enough to do the job assigned us. I seriously doubt whether we could efficiently use any more.

Q: What leadership and managerial strategies are you employing to tap the diverse human resources we haven't fully exploited heretofore?

A: We're got a number of efforts under way to utilize our talent more intensively, including the establishment of advisory groups on the use and development of people. We've got advisory groups on scientific and technical careers, a support advisory group, and a number of initiatives related to training. I try to incorporate into the overall decision-making process an opportunity for input from all sectors of the agency. That is important not merely to build morale and generate a sense of community, but to elicit the creative ideas any agency on the cutting edge of law enforcement desperately needs.

Q: Do you intend to place greater emphasis on the cross-media approach to pollution management?

A: I do. The environmental statutes don't necessarily prohibit cross-media analysis, but they don't usually encourage it either. As a matter of fact, they promote a single-medium approach with deadlines and rigid requirements. I will continue to stress cross-media review so that we don't just transfer pollutants from one medium to another, but render them innocuous and dispose of them once and for all.

Q: In a recent speech you mentioned a need for greater attention to environmental fireproofing as opposed to putting out brushfires after the fact. What are you doing to ensure that EPA does a better job of fireproofing?

A: One is to devise a better system for longer-term objective-setting and strategic analysis for the agency generally and for the major program categories, whether it's wetlands protection or toxics or acid rain or whatever. We've looked at how current objectives impact other media and we've set up methods to minimize that impact. We try constantly to check long-run against short-term goals. That kind of synchronizing process is vital for ecological fire prevention--otherwise short- and long-term aims may conflict and the interests of one medium may dominate another.

Q: What's the part of your job that you most enjoy?

A: The sheer intellectual challenge of mastering the details and figuring out how they add up. Environmental regulation is like a science fiction chess game with a nine-dimensional board, independently motivated pieces, and rules that change arbitrarily. I can recommend it for anybody who's easily bored or thinks he has all the answers.

Q: How would you characterize EPA's public image at this point?

A: I see it as continuing to advance steadily upward from the nadir it reached several years ago. Image, however, is not something that can be fabricated out of nothing. It develops from what you do, not what you say. It is humbling to realize that millions of people haven't the foggiest notion of what EPA does and couldn't care less. We will never reach those who inhabit such a state of "invincible ignorance." But when issues affect people in immediate, palpable, discrete ways, they take a real and often stentorian interest. Our image depends on how well and how promptly we address the events and conditions of pollution in thousands of communities across the land. If the public expects too much, too fast, however, even a good reputation may suffer unjustly.

Q: Does the public have an accurate perception of how well we are fulfilling our mandate and how complicated it is?

A: Not entirely. That's why I think it's important for us to develop a good public information program describing our responsibilities under the law and how we are trying to meet them. In turn, we must listen when the public tells us what its priorities are, or complains about the manner in which we exert our authority. It's a two-way channel that depends upon candor and goodwill. In my opinion, the agency's communication with the public is not as fruitful as it ought to be. Improvement must be made.

Q: You've been trying to give state and local government more control over environmental affairs. Are you satisfied with how this is working?

A: I'm not trying to give them more control just for the sake of it. Each of our statutes pretty clearly spells out our various responsibilities. Most of them cite state and local governments as the primary regulatory units, and point out a direction for us to take in delegating authority. It's just as important for us to define our oversight responsibility when we delegate a program as it is to determine whether the state can carry out that program. We are going through a definitional process with a bias toward delegating power to the level of government that can operate a program effectively--and that is usually the one closest to the problem. I am generally satisfied with the progress we're making.

Q: Would you give any advice to the environmental movement a decade and a half after Earth Day?

A: It is the same advice that I give to agency staff: recognize that substantial progress has been made in environmental protection, but there's still a huge job ahead of us. The issues are complex ones without quick or cheap solutions. It's important that we conduct an informed debate in an open forum and avoid ad hominem rhetoric. I don't look at environmentalists as adversaries, but as people dedicated to a point of view that must be heard. They can be allies, but disagreements are inevitable given our different perspectives and responsibilities.

Q: Do you see any major new environmental issues looming on the horizon?

A: I'll go out on a limb and say I think we've already identified the big ones. Toxics and ground water will, of course, continue to get a lot of attention during the next decade. Only a simpleton would deny the possibility of some general, planetary catastrophe, such as nuclear winter, a runaway greenhouse effect, or some mass biological dieback. But "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

Q: Putting aside large-scale disasters, what about after the year 2000? Are we still going to be grappling with toxics at that time?

A: We have found over the past 15 years that science and technology in time provide a broader range of solutions than one can at first imagine. The same process will be at work in the realm of toxics. To identify a problem is to take the first step toward solving it. Once solutions are available they have to be implemented and then they must be monitored to make sure they work over time. So I think that what we will see over the next 15 years is what we have seen over the last 15. Solutions will emerge for many of the problems we're dealing with today.

Q: Then you're optimistic that, as tough as some of these problems look now, we're nevertheless going to be able to get a handle on them?

A: Exactly. Problems we view as intractable today will probably look much less so at the turn of the century.

Q: Do you have anything you'd like to say in these pages to the staff of the agency?

A: Those who were instrumental in the establishment of the agency can take real pride in its accomplishments over, historically speaking, a very brief period of time. We have proven that a badly contaminated environment can be cleaned up if we are willing to dedicate enough time, energy, brains, and money to the task. If new environmental crises should develop, this country will be ready to confront them, because the institutional machinery is in place. EPA represents a fundamental transformation in American attitudes toward our common patrimony. We can face the future with a confidence firmly rooted in past achievements.