Statement of Lee M. Thomas before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works

by Lee M. Thomas, Acting Administrator
[Statement - February 6, 1985]

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I am pleased to appear before you this morning as President Reagan's nominee for Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. I am honored to have the opportunity to head this vital agency and pledge my firm commitment to the goals of protecting human health and the environment.

It has been a decade and a half since EPA came into being. In those early days, this agency concentrated its energies on the most obvious forms of pollution--smoggy air and rivers so choked with substances that some actually erupted into flame. While we have made substantial progress in these areas during the intervening years, today we must also address much more subtle hazards.

To a certain extent, it is ironic that some of today's environmental problems reflect our successes with earlier priorities. For example, massive air and water cleanup programs implemented during the 1970s created unexpected new challenges involving the safe handling of toxic substances and hazardous wastes.

Our efforts over the past decade also fostered quantum leaps in the technology used to detect and measure pollution. That technology has made us realize just how extensively minute concentrations of many hazardous substances are distributed throughout our environment.

To illustrate this point, we need only look back to the early 1970s, when we could not accurately measure substances beyond the parts-per-million range. Today, we fear that our ground water may contain exotic chemicals in levels of parts per trillion or even parts per quadrillion. I note this to accentuate a point. We do not live in a risk-free environment.

We are an industrialized society, and we will always be faced with risks. It is simply one of the prices we pay for the overall quality of life we enjoy. Thus, we must learn to manage the risks we face.

This has been the thrust of EPA during the past year and one half under Bill Ruckelshaus, and it will continue to be the basis for many of our regulatory decisions.

Some would argue our task is impossible. During a public meeting I attended recently in Boston, a citizen confronted me with a revealing question. He asked me why I would be willing to take on the job of EPA Administrator when I could not possibly succeed. The laws are complex and unworkable, he insisted. The problems are insurmountable.

Although I agreed with him that the challenges before us are demanding, I assured him they are not insurmountable. Our environmental laws are largely on track to address the spectrum of hazards threatening America. It will be a top priority of mine to carry out these laws the way Congress intended. Where we find inadequacies in our statutory foundation, we will work with you to remedy them.

I am a professional manager. Throughout my career, I have managed complex, people-oriented programs. I am dedicated to fulfilling the realistic expectations of the American people. I respect our environmental statutes, and I will carry them out to the best of my ability.

I bring to the job of Administrator experience at every level of government. And I bring a sense of reality with respect to EPA that is the product of two years directing some of this agency's most challenging programs--the hazardous waste regulatory effort under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the cleanup program under the Superfund.

I am proud of the results we have achieved under these two statutes since early 1983. As Administrator, I will work to build the same record of progress under all of EPA's basic environmental laws.

Before turning to your questions, I want to share with you several management goals I have set for my term as EPA Administrator. I would be happy to discuss them with you at length in this forum, and in future ones.

Firstly, I will emphasize continued implementation of the basic programs EPA is responsible for. EPA will do the best possible job with the statutes given us by Congress. I will manage the agency the same way I managed its hazardous waste programs--for results.

To assist in setting goals and achieving them, we will maintain and enhance the management systems developed in recent years to identify problems, monitor progress and measure success. Where necessary, we will develop new ones to fill management gaps as we identify them. I will also work with state officials to assist in the development of similar systems at the state level. For I believe that commitment at all levels of government must be to measurable progress in all areas of environmental protection.

A second goal will be to ensure a strong enforcement presence in all agency programs. It is extremely important that our enforcement efforts be fully integrated into each program. Enforcement need not dominate our implementation of environmental laws. But the regulated community must know that we will not accept recalcitrance when it comes to compliance. We will be ready to take aggressive enforcement steps wherever necessary as part of our commitment to protecting human health and the environment.

Thirdly, I believe in decentralizing the management process where it makes sense. Much of my government experience has been at the state and local levels. I have a natural bias toward managing programs close to the source of the problem. In Superfund, I have worked to decentralize decision-making to the regions and the states. That process will continue, and I will explore opportunities to further decentralize other EPA programs.

It is important to recognize that, properly implemented, decentralization does not diminish the federal role. Rather, it enhances that role. Effective decentralization allows for a clear definition of the roles to be played by federal and state authorities. It promotes efficiency and a system of mutual support.

A fourth goals that I will pursue will be to ensure that EPA has the strong scientific and technical base it needs to support program decisions. This is a key component in assessing risks and managing them. A solid technical capability must be at the heart of our judgment. It will be a critical element of all public health decisions we at EPA will make under my administration.

A fifth goal will be public accessibility to EPA through an effective community relations/public involvement program. This agency will continue to operate in a fishbowl. Openness will be a hallmark of our agency as long as I am here. I welcome varied opinions and viewpoints. I see them as useful contributions to the decisions we must make.

The American people have made it clear they want to be involved in critical environmental debates, especially those that affect their health and their property. The challenge before us is to provide citizens with access to our deliberations and a meaningful role in our decisions. I have found that the community relations program we instituted under Superfund helped people to understand our decisions and helped us to understand their concerns.

Finally, I will work hard to make EPA the kind of agency that attracts and retains quality people. We have a fine professional staff now, and I am committed to maintaining it.

I believe very strongly in government work and government workers. EPA employees are professionals and I respect them. I will do all I can to improve and enhance individual growth and career opportunities for those who serve EPA through commitments to professional development, individual mobility, and opportunities to participate in the decision-making process.

In closing, let me point out something I have learned first-hand during the last two years working with Bill Ruckelshaus. As federal agencies go, EPA is a rather small one. But in terms of its impact on society, EPA is truly profound. For we literally touch the lives of all Americans every day in the rules we promulgate, the policies we formulate, and the decisions we make.

Before the citizens of our nation feel the impact of our work so directly, it is essential that we keep in close contact with those citizens and their representatives in Congress. And that, too, is why I am here today. To let you know that I am concerned about our air, our water and our land. I am committed to a continuation of strong environmental leadership. And, above all else, I am aware that I am working for the health and welfare of all Americans.

Thank you very much for this opportunity to appear before you. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.