Views from the Former Administrators
[EPA Journal - November 1985]
When I returned to EPA in the spring of 1983, I was under no illusion that everything was just fine. I knew there would be some surprises. I was not disappointed.
I was surprised at how emotional the issue of the environment had become. Feeling strongly is one thing--giving reason a prominent holiday is something else. The relationship between the political appointees of the Reagan Administration and the press, the Congress, and the public was marked by deep mistrust and fiery rhetoric. The environmental community was particularly outspoken in its opposition to anything the Administration proposed.
On the positive side I found much of American industry truly concerned by what had happened to EPA. A strong, trusted, and self-confident EPA was essential, not only to protect the environment, but also to ensure that industry could continue to function. A beleaguered EPA meant an uncertain future for those subject to its regulation.
In spite of these surprises and a feeling that the agency was still operating with a flawed statutory and analytical base, I was sustained by my fundamental faith in the dedication and ability of the employees of EPA. My second tenure at the agency only served to reinforce that conviction.
EPA's great strength in 1983 was the same as in 1970--its people. There is something about working at a place as challenging, interesting, and yes, frustrating as EPA that attracts the best and the brightest our country can produce. Those attracted don't all stay, but they never leave without being enlarged by their experience. And, when EPA was in trouble, as it clearly was in 1983, many dropped what they were doing and came back to help.
It is to those who came when called and those who hung on through the storm that I say thanks. There was a time when it was not clear if there would be a fifteenth birthday. It has arrived and the agency is alive, well and certainly wiser than on its first, fifth, or tenth anniversary.
To those of you who have stayed through the thick and the thin--happy birthday!
You stand high in your countrymen's eyes, as well you should.
You operate in waters that are uncharted and uncertain.
You do your best in the face of impossible mandates as to the levels of risk reduction you can achieve and the time it takes to get there and yet you proceed with grace and good humor.
I shall never forget my times spent at EPA.
I will simply repeat what I said when we all shared that wonderful moment on the mall at Waterside in April of 1983: There are no finer public servants anywhere in the world than the men and women of EPA.
It was an honor to have served with you once again.
At age 15, EPA is in the throes of moving from adolescence to adulthood. Since its start, the agency has made significant strides in curbing conventional air and water pollutants. It has accumulated considerable experience in the intricacies of pollution control. Today, like a youth on the verge of becoming an adult, EPA is beginning to grasp fully the rough course ahead.
The exuberance characterizing the agency's early years could hardly continue. In successive Congressional sessions, the nation's lawmakers handed EPA major new responsibilities. The Clean Air Act came in 1970, Clean Water Act in 1972, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act the same year, the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976, and Superfund in 1980, among others. EPA's funding and staff have never been adequate to carry out the plethora of tasks assigned to it by Congress under these laws: prepare and issue regulations, set standards, evaluate chemical risks, clean up pollution, form partnerships with states, sponsor timely research, assess the economic impacts of regulations, keep Congress and the public informed, meet deadlines, and so on.
One can argue about what is adequate support for EPA. While some would like to see its budget increased manyfold, few familiar with the magnitude and complexities of pollution problems would advocate fewer dollars. Yet EPA's funds were cut in the first Reagan Administration budget. Fortunately, recognizing the error of this position, as well as public and Congressional outcry at the erosion of support for the agency, the Administration has modified its position.
But with the possible exception of Superfund, EPA programs will have to scrimp. Particularly in the area of toxic pollutants, failure to build and sustain a strong research program will have long-term adverse effects.
It has not been easy for the agency to respond to its competing overseers. EPA officials report to more than a score of Congressional subcommittees. The White House and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) are always to be reckoned with. Witness the escalating tug of war between OMB and EPA over how much independence EPA can exercise in setting its regulatory agenda and in finalizing regulations. Splintered lines of accountability are likely to continue, forcing EPA to make the best of a difficult situation.
EPA's constituencies--business, environmental organizations, farm groups, and others--also have been demanding critics. Lawsuit after lawsuit has plagued the agency. Sometimes court directives have prodded the government to move more quickly. But more often than makes for good government, lawsuits have merely delayed agency actions and introduced uncertainties into environmental policy. If there is a hopeful note, it is that after a rocky road, EPA is beginning to engage its critics, experimenting with new methods--regulatory negotiation is one--to get beyond the adversarial character of so many past environmental debates.
Nor has it been easy to deal with its primary mission, pollution control. The compartmentalized nature of EPA's programs is in part attributable to the jurisdictional divisions of Congress. In part, it seems a normal state of affairs for a government agency that functions, after all, like any large bureaucracy with rules and procedures and forms in triplicate. But dealing separately with pollution problems in air, water, and land defies a growing understanding of pollution problems. Pollutants generally, toxics in particular, tend to move readily among air, water, and land. A disparity exists between the multiple environments defined by statutes, regulations, and Congressional committees and the one natural environment with which those policies and institutions try to deal.
An appreciation of the "cross-media" phenomenon, as many now call it, underlay the creation of EPA in 1970 when several offices scattered throughout the federal government were combined into a single line agency. That appreciation was lost in the day-to-day dynamics of creating a new agency, only to be rediscovered as the problems posed by toxic chemicals became better understood. As the still rudimentary process of assessing risks from chemicals improves--we would do well to keep in mind that only a small fraction of chemicals used in commerce have been adequately tested for health and environmental effects--EPA could find itself confronting the need for a major overhaul of its pollution control authorities.
The extent and seriousness of air and water contamination by toxic chemicals was hardly recognized by the drafters of the Clean Air and Water acts 15 years ago. Today, public concern is mounting over toxic air pollutants indoors and outside, over pesticides and other chemicals washing off farmlands and other "nonpoint" sources into our waterways, over pollution of groundwater, over the slow pace of cleanup in the Superfund program, over the effects of acid rain. The agency has yet to tame these problems.
Problems with toxic chemicals are cropping up worldwide, in industrial accidents, in farmworker health, in migrating wildlife. This parallels the growth of environmental awareness around the globe. In 1972, at the United Nation's Stockholm conference on the environment, scarcely more than a dozen developing nations had agencies addressing environmental matters. The developing world tended to cast the issue as if they too, deserved the chance to pollute their way to economic well-being. Since then, more than 100 developing countries have formed some kind of environmental ministry. Some are newly receptive to benefitting from U.S. experience in pollution control. Many recognize the increasingly clear international dimensions of environmental problems. Finding a proper, effective role for EPA--technical assistance, sharing research and information on standards and risks, initiatives in international forums--remains an ongoing concern.
Undaunted, EPA at age 15 has going for it one major plus: as solid, competent, knowledgeable, and dedicated a staff of civil servants as can be found anywhere. Their commitment bodes well for the agency despite some formidable challenges, current and yet-to-come. Among the most pressing: toxic pollutants, ground-water contamination, and acid rain.
There is, I am told, an ancient curse: "May you live in interesting times."
That phrase aptly describes EPA's position today. In its brief 15 years of existence, the agency has been living on the razor's edge of our society's attempt to come to grips with the legacy of one of the most significant economic and environmental events of this century: the chemical revolution.
Our chemical industry has brought us thousands of substances that save lives, increase agricultural productivity, and improve our living standards. But among them, too, have been chemicals whose side effects we did not anticipate, and often could not judge, for years: Thalidomide, DES, PCBs, EDB, to mention a few.
Our ability to create new substances outran our knowledge about their characteristics, pathways, and ultimate effects. According to a 1983 study by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, little or no health information exists in government files about the chronic effects of almost 90 percent of all chemicals, including many commonly used drugs, cosmetics and industrial compounds. The Council reported that, of the more than five million chemicals known to man, about 53,000 are commercially important, and for an estimated 86 percent of these, so little is known about their toxicity that not even a partial assessment of their health hazards can be made.
I cite this finding principally to illustrate what EPA staff and people familiar with environmental issues already know: most decisions involve "judgment calls." In almost no case is the scientific evidence free of ambiguity. Moreover, in our complex industrial economy, the environmental unknowns almost always seem greater than the knowns.
Many of these materials are appearing in human tissue and in essential food and water supplies. Poll after poll has shown overwhelming public demand for government action to protect people against involuntary exposure to even minute quantities of substances feared to be harmful to human health.
Congress has responded by making EPA responsible for implementing a complex set of laws to protect human health by controlling such exposures. The agency often comes under fire--unfairly--for failing to accomplish its goals with optimum efficiency. Nonetheless, it is being asked to perform Heculean tasks, and some resolution must ultimately be reached about what government can reasonably be expected to accomplish. Above all, our society needs to come to terms with the issue of what degrees of what kinds of risks are acceptable, and at what price.
EPA must play the honest broker among legitimate competing societal concerns. Insufficient knowledge cannot justify failure to act, so the agency must constantly operate in the context of scientific uncertainties. There is a growing gap between EPA's obligations and authorities and its ability to deliver satisfactory results by traditional administrative means.
To fulfill its mandates, EPA does need increased resources far beyond the 1981 levels to which Congress has recently barely restored it. But even a substantial infusion of money and staff will not of itself get the job done, and increases of any notable magnitude are unlikely in the face of competition for finite government resources for other pressing social needs.
The agency needs to draw on two invaluable internal assets: the spirit of dedication and professionalism that characterized its employees throughout the first decade of the agency's creation and maturation, and a renewed resolve to tap the best minds in the scientific, business, academic, and political communities to devise better ways of achieving environmental goals.
EPA must consistently be its own sternest critic, always evaluating whether it is using the most effective means to attain its ends. The agency needs, for example, to examine and adopt innovative approaches--such as using private sector auditors, inspectors, and certification processes--to maximize the resources that government can directly bring to bear. It needs to deal creatively with non-technical problems, such as liability issues. It must re-engage in intensive public education efforts to frame complex scientific/technical issues so that people can make informed judgments about managing risks in our society. It needs to restore decimated government research programs and to stimulate new non-governmental efforts to realize answers to the unknowns confronting us.
Living on the razor's edge is never comfortable, but whoever promised anyone in public service any kind of garden? EPA does, indeed, live in interesting times, and that is its only constant prospect in this age of change and challenge.
The Environmental Protection Agency is unique among all other federal agencies in that the combined expectations of both the American public and the EPA staff exceed the capability of any agency to achieve those goals. And yet, that seeming contradiction is in reality an asset, a strength, that continues to serve the agency and the public well.
My 22-month tenure as head of EPA was hardly the agency's most serene hour. By the time I left, the air was filled with so many charges, and the staff and I were so bogged down in the fight with Congress over the doctrine of executive privilege, that the agency itself seemed hardly to be functioning.
It was functioning, however. Indeed, we had instituted a number of fundamental changes that were beginning to have their desired effect, and as a result of the internal dialogue that I had initiated in order to learn which changes were most necessary, I also learned a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of EPA.
Let me begin with the weaknesses, so that I can end on an upbeat note. In my opinion, the single greatest weakness within EPA--and from the very beginning, not just recently--is its lack of solid management skills, from top to bottom. When I took office, there were substantial backlogs in every programmatic area, with the licensing backlogs in RCRA being the most flagrant example (and one which is hardly improved today).
The need for stronger management became so pronounced that Congress stepped into the vacuum and began imposing a series of deadlines, in effect taking over the management function at the highest levels. The fundamental importance of deadlines, whether internally or externally imposed, was recently recognized by a joint study of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, with the very title of which underscores my point: "Statutory Deadlines in Environmental Legislation: Necessary But Need Improvement."
I was blessed with a few top-notch managers (Comptroller Morgan Kinghorn and Superfund chief William Hedeman, among others, come immediately to mind) but not enough. As one of my former top aides told me, "There is not a large cadre of superior managers with a lot of management skill. Traditionally, people come from the technical areas and are 'thrust up' to management posts. There is simply not enough depth. Also, we have developed a star system, in that if people are recognized as being good, we give them too much more to do, to the point, frequently, of burning them out. And, because so many staff people at EPA are committed, they tend to overpromise, to bite of more than they can chew." These are classic, text-book management problems.
Finally, in regard to weaknesses, there is the problem of priorities. EPA operates under a set of commands from the Congress, commands which have been written into the law. Once they exist, they must be answered, even if changing times result in changing priorities. There has always been--and I hope always will continue to be--within EPA a conflict between what we are required to do and what we would like to do. But that conflict, if properly managed, can result in a healthy working atmosphere. I believe we established, in my 22 months, an effective way of meeting our statutory requirements while being mindful of priorities.
As for strengths, it must be mentioned first of all that EPA is still a very young agency with a very high degree of commitment. And that makes it a very exciting place to work. It is full of new ideas. But the same youthful enthusiasm and commitment can be a "positive-negative." (Indeed, EPA is filled with positive-negatives, which is not at all a bad thing, even if it does create internal conflicts.)
During my time at EPA we instituted four changes which I feel are all definitely "strengths." They are:
- the management system, whereby we made sure people knew what they were to do and to whom they were responsible;
- the peer review system, which enabled us, for example, to take Superfund from a piece of paper recently passed into law to a full-blown federal program;
- the revamping of the enforcement system, a highly controversial change that nonetheless allowed the agency for the first time in years to speak with a single voice, and to return to a proper attorney-client relationship; and
- the budgetary hearings procedure, which for the first time in EPA history gave the Administrator direct involvement in the agency's various budget decisions, with the result being better environmental results for the money, or, even, for less money.
It should be remembered that I came to office as part of a new Administration that brought a different approach to solving the problems of government. One of the tenets of that approach was what we called New Federalism, or the idea that thee were any number of services being provided by Uncle Sam that could be better provided by the states themselves. Under that theory, while at EPA, we were the only agency in Washington that was truly practicing New Federalism. The amount of delegation we accomplished in 22 months was truly enormous. And with each delegation we increased the manpower in the country dedicated to environmental protection.
All of these changes, I am proud to say, remain in effect today, and continue to prove their worth. I don't mean to sound parochial, however, by mentioning only those strengths which my people and I introduced. There was a lot of fundamental good in EPA when we arrived, and it remains.
As a long-time career person at EPA told me recently, "When we tackle a problem, there are few agencies in town that can tackle it as well as we can. For example, I think we came to terms with the problem of asbestos in the schools more quickly than anybody else could have."
If pressed to name EPA's greatest strength, I would have to say that its real strength is the fact that the agency's mission enjoys enormous popular support among the people of America.
I think all of us who have ever worked for EPA can be proud of the accomplishments of the last 15 years, especially in the areas of air and water. And now there is also a strong Superfund program in place (the funding for which will most certainly be extended and increased). But I would be remiss if I didn't mention my fears about how EPA is dealing, through RCRA, with the problem of waste.
Paradoxically, waste represents both EPA's greatest strength and its greatest weakness: we have done a fine job of cleaning it up, but a poor job of preventing it. That is EPA's challenge for the future.