A Vision for EPA's Future: An Interview with William K. Reilly

[EPA Journal - Sept./Oct. 1990]

On this occasion of EPA's 20th anniversary, EPA Journal asked Administrator Reilly for his assessment of the challenges facing EPA and about his goals and vision for the Agency. The questions and Mr. Reilly's answers follow:

Q: If you had to say what the most crucial environmental issues facing the world in the 1990s are, what would they be?

A: I think the most serious and potentially most destructive environmental problems have to do with planetary systems and the possibility of their destabilization. The depletion of stratospheric ozone is certainly high on this list.

The loss of forests, particularly in the tropics--and more broadly, the degradation of biological systems and their productivity--is also very important. Forest losses in the topics are proceeding so fast that within the next 10 to 15 years, the number of mature forest systems will be very significantly impaired. Some will be virtually gone at the present rates of loss.

That loss will diminish the species on the planet very significantly. It will alter the rainfall and local climate for a number of developing countries. It may well exacerbate the climatic problems throughout the world.

Poverty and the stresses that very poor people place on the environment are also critical. In so many large cities, we see accumulations of toxics in the air, in the groundwater, and in the soils that are very difficult to address. It takes resources to improve the environment. Unless poor countries can generate wealth and growth, they're unlikely to be able to devote any resources to the environment.

Those, I think, are the most significant problems. In addition, there are places in Eastern Europe where people are dying prematurely due to environmental problems. Rivers in some cases are almost half chemicals. Pesticide residues on food are grossly excessive. Vast areas are contaminated with cadmium and other heavy metals. Water supplies are shrinking as river water cannot be purified for drinking. In many cases, it cannot even be used to cool machinery.

More fundamentally, the problem in our own country, as well as in many countries that are more grossly affected by environmental contamination, is to develop systems of economic growth and activity that ensure sustainability. We have not yet done that even here.

There are many systems that are continuing to deteriorate in the United States. With all of the efforts we've made in the Chesapeake Bay, we still see a steady loss and project a continuing loss of oxygen. Fish still accumulate toxins in the Great Lakes. On the other hand, there are fish in the Great Lakes. That's a great achievement over the past 20 years, but it's an incomplete one.

Q: Our next question focuses on EPA and EPA's mission. It is sometimes said that EPA has taken care of the most obvious environmental problems. Now, the Agency faces tougher challenges, needing basic new approaches. Do you agree?

A: I think the accomplishments of EPA over the past 20 years have been extraordinary. I believe there is no more significant success story in the realm of public policy during this period.

Consider all of the other commitments society made during that time--whether to eliminate poverty or provide adequate housing, or to control crime or eliminate illegal drugs. We have made more progress on the environment than in all of those other areas.

Nevertheless, we still have persistent environmental problems involving soil run-off containing pesticides and nutrients from farms and other lands and cities. We have a continuing air-pollution problem that leaves half our population breathing unhealthy air. We have a rate of wetlands loss that is really shocking in view of our understanding of wetland functions and the long-time commitment on the part of the federal government and the states to wetlands protection. There are contaminated wells from one coast to the other. And this problem appears to be becoming more serious.

Many of these problems are the result of diffuse, difficult-to-control sources of pollution. They are not obvious or visible or corrected by simple enforcement actions against a spewing smokestack or a recalcitrant industry. They really involve all of us. And what they involve most fundamentally, I think, is a pattern of use of resources and resulting waste that is out of control. We waste far more than many other successful, competitive modern industrialized countries do. And that waste is bedeviling us in all media: air, water, and land.

Addressing problems of this sort is going to mean a change in attitude, a somewhat different ethic with respect to resource use and disposal--and a much more individual commitment. To attain that, EPA has to speak to the public with a clearer voice, and we have to be more successful at winning their adherence for changes in behavior.

That's a somewhat different mission than the Agency began with. But it's necessary, I think, to address the remaining problems we have.

Q: What is your primary goal for the Agency as it positions itself to deal with the kind of problems that you are talking about--contemporary environmental problems?

A: My principal goal is to ensure that EPA organizes its own agenda and communicates to the society a message based on careful science and systematic assessment of the seriousness of problems. I want us to pay attention to the things that matter. I want us to be clear about the threats to health. I want us to avoid being transported by popular enthusiasms, as Senator Moynihan warned on my first meeting with him, and to base our work consistently on good, sound science.

We need the coherence and integrity that scientific research can provide us. And we need scientific information to defend what will often be difficult, controversial, or expensive decisions. I look to science and to risk assessment to help the Agency put together a much more coherent agenda than has characterized the past 20 years, given the accumulation of separate statutes EPA has received.

I see all of this as a means of reducing the risk to health and the destruction of ecology that continue even into the 1990s.

Q: You've already touched on the theme of pollution prevention as a strategy for the future. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

A: EPA has been very effective, I think, at developing standards and promulgating regulations and enforcing the law. We have been less successful at causing people to ask questions, before they become polluters, about the possibilities for avoiding pollution in the first place.

As we look to the future, especially in areas where much progress has been made against a problem, making a further dent is going to require certain fundamental changes. For a lot of people, it's going to mean asking different kinds of questions. How will a product be used? How will it be manufactured? What kinds of byproducts will be crated in its manufacture? And how will it be disposed of? Is it possible to create an alternative product which entails significantly fewer environmental problems--a product which can be recycled, which is biodegradable, which minimizes or prevents altogether the resulting assaults on the environment?

That's a subtle problem. People will not change their habits without incentives to do so. We're going to have to become more adept at communicating, at providing information and education, and at leading by constant exhortation. We must also become more expert at interrelating environmental proposals with economic incentives and finding ways to use incentives and taxes of one sort or another to deter the creation of products that have a high cost in terms of environmental impact and funds that will have to be invested in cleanup later on.

I think people at EPA have learned these principals through experience, but we have not yet fully applied them. The lesson of pollution prevention is one that will ultimately make sense both economically and environmentally, but it's not widely understood as I speak.

Q: You have spelled out a pretty daunting list of problems and strategies. Yet historically, the Agency's budget has been relatively level. How are you going to realize your vision for EPA in view of that reality?

A: Well, we have begun to bring the operating budget up in the last couple of years. But it is certainly correct that we do not ourselves have the resources sufficient to solve all of the nation's environmental problems.

We are, however, the cockpit of great influence on the expenditure of much larger sums of money. The percentage of money spent on the environment that actually goes to EPA is less than 10 percent. That's less than 10 percent of the funds being expended by the society generally--by federal, state, and local governments and by private industry and individuals.

EPA influences and often determines the expenditure of the other 90-plus percent of funds. There is a steeply rising curve of expenditure on the environment in this country, and by the time this issue of EPA Journal comes out, we will have issued a report entitled The Cost of a Clean Environment. As this report shows, the United States is committing more money, as a percentage of gross national product, to environmental protection than many of our economic competitors.

I think the kinds of tools that we have and the increasing personnel resources that we now deploy--almost 2,000 more than a couple of years ago--give us not really adequate staff support, but an encouraging level of support that will allow us to carry out our mission.

Q: In your testimony at your confirmation hearing in Congress, you said enforcement is the key to an effective EPA. How are we doing in that respect?

A: Enforcement is one of those activities where if you are vigorous and are seen to be so, you will gain a great leverage, a great boost in productivity in all of your programs. It will be less necessary to police a system that gets the message that it had better self-police.

I am very pleased with the enforcement record in my time here. The measures we have are either record highs or second-bests ever. We have been working well with the Justice Department. Some milestone cases in the last couple of years have significantly strengthened our hand for future enforcement actions.

One example worth citing is the record number of Superfund settlements concerning potentially responsible parties. I think this record suggests that lawyers are now giving clients a different kind of advice. The Agency obviously is serious. It's going to go after potentially responsible parties. Before that happens, they would do well to come forward and acknowledge their responsibilities. That's the kind of message I hope will become broadly understood in other areas as well.

EPA has also begun to use enforcement in a more creative way. We have entered into settlements that require pollution-prevention commitments from companies that sometimes go quite beyond the immediate circumstances of enforcement. That is a less well-understood possibility, but one that I think Jim Strock (EPA's Assistant Administrator for Enforcement) and I very much believe in. It's possible to break new ground in crafting settlements with companies that set the companies on a new course.

Q: EPA has evolved as primarily a public health agency. Do you favor an increased emphasis on ecological concerns?

A: I think EPA was conceived as an organization that would pay significant attention to ecology, meaning that a high proportion of its attention and resources would go to ecological stabilization and protection. Obviously we have enormously significant public-health responsibilities reflected in the statutes we administer.

I would like to reestablish the priority that I think belongs to national resources. Fundamentally, we all depend on sound, healthy, natural systems. All human activity--all economic activity--depends upon them.

One sees from the experience of Eastern Europe today what happens when that's forgotten. You cannot manage a successful economy for very long if you allow your ground water to become contaminated, your soils to accumulate heavy metals, your rivers to run with chemicals, and so forth. These affect public health, but they also affect the lasting capacity of nature to sustain life in all of its diversity and richness.

Ecology and ecological systems also function to warn us about the consequences of the way we're living. The fact that we see a high accumulation of toxic substances in fish in many of our surface waters, and particularly in the Great Lakes, should make clear to us the size of the clean-up job still to be done. The Great Lakes is not a healthy system. It will ultimately be unsustainable if it remains so contaminated, and we've got to clean it up. The loss of basic resources like wetlands will translate, I think, into many other consequences that we probably half understand.

Q: If you look 20 years into the future, what do you think EPA might be like? What's the chief difference you'd like to see? Will environmental quality be better?

A: First of all, I would hope that EPA would be understood as an agency with sufficient scientific capacity, consistency, and integrity that it is not subject to transitory seizures of public opinion. I would hope that our mission is broadly embraced by the society and that we are seen as having the key role in reconciling industrial and economic activity with nature and environmental protection.

Looking outside the Agency, I would expect the air in our cities to be significantly cleaner. The promise of the Clean Air Act is very great. We have identified the goals and we've settled on the means that will, in fact, move us toward that objective. So that's not merely wishful thinking. Each generation will have to revisit the clean air issue as there are more cars and factories and other sources, but the new emphasis on clean fuels and economic incentives will serve us well as future priorities are decided.

I would hope that we can be equally successful in other areas of the environment and public policy and bring back the Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound, the Great Lakes, and other great water bodies to a level of health and productivity that they have not yet achieved in recent years.

Internationally, I would hope that we will have found a means to help many of the most impoverished countries and areas with the most degraded environments to stabilize their environments, protect public health, and do for their countries what we have done and are doing for our own. In my experience, the stature of EPA seems to rise with distance from Washington, DC. Our standards, our epidemiological resources, our information, and our example are esteemed and emulated the world over.

To an extraordinary degree, the world looks to EPA to chart the course of environmental protection. What we do here is watched closely and borrowed almost immediately. That's a high responsibility and one that, with our increasing international capacities, I think we are better equipped to carry. We are going to be saving lives and restoring ecological systems on a large scale outside the country as well as in this nation in the next 20 years. The simple fact is there's no one else; there's no other agency capable of playing that role.

I do believe that environmental quality in our own country will be better, perhaps significantly so. I'm reasonably confident that in some of the new pre-market economies of Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, the next two decades will see better environmental stewardship.

As the Latin American countries begin to cope with their debt and--thanks to President Bush's "Enterprise for the Americas" initiative--to apply some of that debt to natural resource and environmental protection, they also should be able to bring down the grotesque levels of air pollution affecting many of their citizens and get a grip on toxic substances.

Whether they will succeed in managing their forests is a larger question and a more daunting problem. The President's commitment to an agreement on world forestry reflects our sense of urgency about that problem that will cause us to give it a very high priority. But the reasons for forest losses are so fundamentally connected to patterns of land tenure and settlement and poverty that it's going to take a great deal of imagination, and a fair amount of money, to solve the deforestation problem.

On a more positive note, the world should have ceased production of ozone depleting chemicals within the next 20 years, the developing world having fully phased them out by then. And within the not-too-distant future thereafter, we should begin to see a decrease in the ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth as a consequence of ozone depletion.

Ultimately, I think the prospects for environmental improvement both in the United States and throughout the world will depend on public expectations and demands. Happily, public consciousness of the environment is higher today than I've ever seen it. That is true even in the developing world. It's true in Mexico, Brazil, and Chile, and it's certainly true in Eastern and Western Europe, the United States, Australia, and Canada.

In a fundamental way, public consciousness is something we have to rely upon and also inform. The relationship is reciprocal. EPA informs public expectations, and public expectations drive us to do better. More that anything else, public trust enables us to lead and to be effective.

Q: One last question: Here we are at EPA's 20th anniversary, some 17,000 employees strong. Sometimes environmentalists say that EPA is not doing enough, and sometimes industry says that EPA is doing too much. Do you have particular closing thoughts on how we are really doing?

A: EPA seems always to sit astride the controversial nexus between concerns about health and anxieties about costs, and between science and economics. We do have our critics, as any agency operating with such power in areas of such importance is going to have. There have always been concerns on the part of the regulated community that we are excessively zealous, insensitive to economics,, or sometimes not informed about science or sufficiently attuned to risk. There are also concerns among environmentalists, as you mentioned, that we are sometimes slow to act in the absence of a court suit or a statutory directive.

I think the quality of people here at EPA is such that we can maintain the vigor that we have, and certainly with the support we have from President Bush, do a far better job of carrying out our mission.

We can never fully satisfy the various critics of the Agency, but we can win their respect. It seems to me that we are increasingly doing that.

We can also recapture the agenda. One of the distressing aspects of the past several years is the loss of our capacity to shape initiatives and influence the Congressional agenda: These are things I believe EPA is qualified to do.

I feel very strongly about winning back the kind of trust from Congress and the country that EPA needs to function effectively. And the best case we can ever make on this point turns on the professional skill, training, integrity and sheer vigor of our employees. There are some government agencies where you walk through the halls and adrenalin just flows out your shoes onto the floor. EPA is not one of those agencies: This is still a young, aggressive, and vigorous agency.

Overall, EPA people have wonderful qualities, and I cannot say enough how proud I am to be leading them at this time.