Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#612 - What's Wrong With The EPA, 19-Aug-1998

For decades, the Westinghouse Corporation disposed of its toxic waste
at several dump sites in Bloomington, Indiana. In the early '80s, the
dumps came under the aegis of the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency's Superfund program. While negotiations with Westinghouse over
how to cleanup the waste dragged on for years, EPA, in order not to
upset the negotiations, kept from the public the fact that toxic air
levels near the sites were more than 15 times greater than the
Superfund target risk level. At the same time that EPA was secretly
recommending to its staff that they wear respiratory protection
whenever on-site, it was assuring the people of Bloomington that they
were in no immediate danger.

This sort of behavior is symptomatic of the bigotry festering at the
core of EPA. In my 25 years with EPA, I have heard countless remarks
and witnessed many heartless actions denigrating environmental
concerns, environmentalists, environmental organizations and, most
particularly, community environmental activists. While for the outside
world, EPA puts on a face of concern and caring for the unfortunate
victims of environmental pollution, the agency is permeated with
contempt for these same people.

This prejudice manifests itself in countless EPA actions: in decisions
to locate hazardous-waste facilities in already heavily polluted poor
neighborhoods; in Superfund cleanups that ignore community concerns in
favor of giving big bucks to favored contractors; in the agency's lax
and corrupt enforcement of regulations governing polluting industries;
and in its suppression of employees who advocate for the public

Not all EPA employees are bigoted. In the early days, in fact, many
people joined the agency out of a strong environmental ethic. But 27
years later, most of the idealists are long gone, having abandoned EPA
in disillusionment. They have been replaced by careerists whose
environmental ethic, if it exists at all, is subordinate to their
ambition. This translates into blind loyalty to the organization,
regardless of whether it is right or wrong. The Russians have a word
for these people: apparatchiks.

In the minds of EPA personnel, the agency represents the public
interest. Since environmentalists and community activists also claim to
represent the public interest, EPA employees view them, in a sense, as
competitors. The instinctive reaction of these employees is to attack
and eliminate the competition. Hard-core, loud-mouth bigots are a small
minority, but a much larger majority passively shares many of the same

Congress and the White House have tended to view polluters, especially
the big corporations, the way the Salvation Army might regard a sinner:
"He's not really bad. He just needs to be reformed, shown the light and
set on the path of righteousness." This attitude filters down through
all levels of EPA.

EPA is soft on polluters for other reasons as well. EPA personnel are
much more comfortable with industry types, who are more likely than
environmentalists to share their cultural background and outlook. Many
EPA staffers aspire to high-paying corporate jobs through the
"revolving doors" between government and industry. For instance, former
EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus (a Republican) now works for
waste hauler Browning-Ferris and former EPA general counsel Joan
Burnstein (a Democrat) works for Waste Management Inc. It's not,
however, just political appointees who make the leap. Literally
hundreds of career civil service EPA employees have left or retired
from the agency to work for the companies they once regulated.

Years of neglect and condescending treatment have made communities
affected by industrial pollution deeply skeptical of EPA's ability and
desire to help them. These poor and often minority communities have
become more organized and militant, forming literally thousands of
grass-roots organizations to contest EPA's handling of their
environmental concerns.

These grass-roots groups include the Times Beach Action Group,
contesting EPA's incineration of dioxin-contaminated soil in Times
Beach, Mo.; Mothers Organized to Stop Environmental Sins, fighting to
close a hazardous-waste treatment facility in Winona, Texas; Citizens
Against Toxic Exposure, fighting EPA's botched handling of the "Mt.
Dioxin" Superfund site in Pensacola, Fla.; and the Ocean County
Citizens for Clean Water, documenting pollution-related childhood
cancers in Toms River, N.J.

A score of professional environmental organizations have evolved to
assist and educate these communities. Organizations such as Communities
for a Better Environment in San Francisco, Southern Organizing
Committee in Atlanta, Citizens for a Better Environment in Chicago, the
North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, and the grand
daddy of them all, Lois Gibbs' Center for Health, Environment and
Justice (formerly Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste) in
Arlington, Virginia. National organizations such as Greenpeace and the
Sierra Club have also actively supported the grass-roots movement.

EPA has tried to stem this tide by continually inventing new
initiatives of its own. Typically these efforts succeed in little more
than spawning new bureaucracies. At headquarters, we have the
Complaints Resolution Staff, the State and Community Outreach Staff,
the Common Sense Initiative, the Office of Environmental Justice, the
Outreach/Special Projects Staff, the Community Involvement Outreach
Center, the Complaints Resolution and External Compliance Staff, the
Alternative Dispute Resolution Team and numerous other communication
and outreach branches. Every EPA regional office has its own
Environmental Justice Staff, Alternative Dispute Resolution staff,
Community Involvement staff and so forth.

While some of these initiatives, such as the National Environmental
Justice Advisory Committee, do good work, most of them are more
palliatives to blunt community outrage without changing the internal
EPA policies that cause the problems in the first place. This,
ironically, produces the need to create still more little

One worthy EPA initiative is the Office of the Hazardous Waste
Ombudsman, created by Congress in 1984. Robert Martin, the ombudsman,
has gotten EPA regional Superfund directors to back down when citizens
complained to him about the agency's policies. For example, Martin
successfully intervened on behalf of the community in a dispute over a
toxic dump site in Brio, Texas, in which EPA's cleanup methods would
have exposed the community to more toxic chemicals than if EPA had done
nothing at all. As a result of such actions, Martin is held in high
esteem by community activists and is despised by the Superfund
directors, who are more concerned with the prosperity of Superfund
contractors than with the health of the public.

But these success stories are often short-lived. When EPA Administrator
Carol Browner decided to augment the ombudsman function by creating 10
additional ombudsmen, one for each EPA region, many of the regional
Superfund directors undermined the plan by insisting that the regional
ombudsmen report to them rather than to Martin. Thus, EPA created a new
"public outreach" initiative to kill one of the few initiatives that

In a meeting last year of these regional ombudsmen, which I attended,
participants bandied about disparaging and condescending remarks about
environmentalists and community activists. The head of EPA's Community
Involvement Outreach Center didn't interject. I'm used to hearing these
kinds of put-downs at internal EPA meetings, but I was taken aback to
hear them from the lips of the very people selected by EPA to
investigate community complaints. These attitudes obviously affect EPA
policy. I later learned from two different communities that one
regional ombudsman was using his office to isolate and discredit
complainants rather than to address complaints. EPA's cynicism and
contempt for the public interest is not limited to the regional offices
or to the Superfund program but is part of the institutional culture of
the agency. In 1997, the newspapers were full of stories about
Browner's struggle to win the administration's approval of tough new
air standards for ozone and particulates over the vociferous objections
of industry. the impression created in the press and fostered by
industry was of a zealous agency hell-bent on forcing these strong
standards on the country regardless of the consequences. Not mentioned
was the fact that the Clean Air Act of 1970 required EPA to review and,
if necessary, revise these standards every five years. EPA stopped
doing so in 1979. Only after it lost a lawsuit filed by the American
Lung Association in 1991 and was under court order to act did EPA write
the minimal standards it thought it could get away with. The only
zealousness shown by the agency was in using taxpayer money to fight in
court for their right to disobey the law.

An EPA executive in charge of the Common Sense Initiative, founded to
bring together industry, state and environmental representatives to
reform EPA regulations, once commented to me--with a straight face--how
much easier it would be to reach a consensus if only the
environmentalists weren't involved.

EPA deals with its dismal environmental record the same way industry
deals with its pollution: not by changing what it does but by papering
over problems with slick PR. The only difference is that EPA uses
taxpayer money to pay for it.

--by William Sanjour[1]


[1] William Sanjour has been an employee of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) since the early '70s, originally as a manager
in the hazardous-waste office. In 1980, he testified before Congress on
illegal EPA efforts to quash hazardous-waste regulations. Agency
officials retaliated by transferring him to an office with no functions
and no personnel. Since then, Sanjour has actively helped environmental
and community organizations and has written numerous articles about
environmental issues and EPA. In spite of persistent harassment by the
agency, he continues to work in the public interest helping communities
and his fellow whistleblowers. He is on the advisory board of the North
Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network and the National
Whistleblower Center, and is a fellow of the Environmental Research
Foundation. This article has not been submitted for EPA approval and
does not necessarily reflect the views of the agency.

This article originally appeared in the July 28, 1997, issue of IN
THESE TIMES, a bi-weekly news magazine based in Chicago.

Descriptor terms: william sanjour; epa; superfund;

Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (29)