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#392 - Cabinet Status Won't Help EPA, 01-Jun-1994

Many environmental advocates in the past few years seem to have set
their sights on the holy grail of cabinet status for EPA. But from my
experience as an enforcement attorney at EPA, cabinet status would do
little to reduce EPA's profound woes and might do much to exacerbate
them.

The essential problem in environmental protection is to convert from a
way of life that consumes ever more resources and produces ever more
pollution, to a sustainable one that recognizes boundaries. Unending
growth is cancer, and it means certain death. Al Gore recognized this;
he devoted several chapters of his book EARTH IN THE BALANCE to making
the case for sustainability, although he never quite revealed how to
accomplish it. Any action to move us in the direction of sustainability
is opposed by those who are invested in our growth-oriented, war-based
economy. As a result, each and every environmental decision becomes a
political struggle between well-heeled interests and those whose vision
is a sustainable way of life. Science is virtually ignored in the
process.

Examples abound in every one of EPA's programs. For instance, EPA has
never been able to effectively regulate pesticides because whenever it
has attempted to do so the House Appropriations Committee has
threatened to cut EPA's budget. For the past two decades, the committee
has been chaired by Congressman Whitten of Mississippi, whose campaigns
were heavily financed by agricultural chemical interests. Whitten has
declared at various times that regulation of pesticides is a "communist
conspiracy." Two years ago Whitten was succeeded by Congressman Natcher
of Kentucky who for similar reasons, seemed to share this view. Thus,
despite enormous scientific evidence of health and ecological damage,
and economic data that show organic farming may be more profitable and
more productive, EPA has been unable to do its regulatory job. Despite
EPA's regulatory inaction, many farmers are learning that organic
farming is profitable and more sustainable than dependency on expensive
petrochemicals. But for the most part, EPA has been an obstacle rather
than a promoter of this trend.

In the RCRA [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the federal
hazardous waste management law] program, each decision about how
stringently to regulate a waste stream represents a new battle field.
The Office of Solid Waste has made a practice of inviting industry to
advise the agency on regulation. The result is not too surprising: if a
regulation would impose too high a burden on an influential industry,
it is relaxed, delayed or simply not implemented. Five years ago, after
President Bush promised to implement the Basel convention, an
international agreement that would restrict exports of hazardous wastes
from industrial countries to non-industrial countries, we worked
furiously to develop implementing legislation. The recycling and metal
recovery industries protested that restrictions on waste exports would
prevent recycling of U.S. waste abroad, and so the EPA workgroup carved
out a recycling exemption despite concerns that sham recycling could be
used as a pretext to avoid protective restrictions. Even after all the
compromises, EPA's proposed legislation was buried at OMB because of
industry objections that any control of hazardous waste exports would
interfere with free trade. The U.S. remains one of the few industrial
counties that has not ratified the Basel convention, although that may
finally be changing.

In Superfund, where I have done most of my work for the past six years,
the sites that get cleaned up first are those ripe for development.
Although decisions are couched in terms of risk, in reality this plays
a very secondary role. When prime waterfront property is involved, EPA
finds a way to finance cleanup, and that's exactly what's happening to
the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle. But when powerful mining interests
destroy the health of working class people, EPA has looked the other
way. In the 1970s high silver prices induced greedy owners of the
Bunker Hill smelter to operate it beyond its capacity. They pushed the
smelter so hard that they burned the baghouse that was intended to trap
airborne lead emissions. The fire dispersed lead dust throughout the
Coeur d'Alene valley and caused brain damage to exposed children living
there. The mine and smelter owners are very politically influential: no
criminal prosecutions have ever been initiated, and the civil suit
seeking payment for clean up has proceeded so slowly that the major
contributors, including Gulf Resources, have been able to shuttle their
assets out of the country. EPA is left in bankruptcy court competing
with pensioners of the mining companies for the remaining assets.

The point of these examples is this: EPA is far too susceptible to the
influence of powerful and wealthy industrial interests. As regulatory
agencies often do, the agency has been captured by the industries it
regulates. Cabinet level status for the agency would not correct this
and might make the agency even more political. Can you imagine how much
worse the purge EPA endured during the early Reagan years would have
been if EPA had been a cabinet agency like Interior? They got Jim Watt.
And things haven't changed much. In the Clinton Administration,
reformers like Jim Baca are quickly shown the door at Interior. If
that's what cabinet status means, EPA doesn't need it.

What EPA does need is real INDEPENDENCE. FDR recognized the need for
regulatory agencies to be politically insulated when he persuaded
Congress to create the classic regulatory bodies such as the Federal
Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission, the Interstate
Commerce Commission, etc. These agencies are not part of the executive
branch but are administrative agencies with both legislative and
executive functions. They are directed by commissioners whose terms are
staggered so that no one President can change the commission's
direction too drastically. A more powerful example is the Federal
Reserve Board, whose members are also appointed by Presidents for
staggered terms. The Fed uses economic data and forecasts to decide
whether to raise or lower interest rates or change banking regulations
independent of Congress or the President. Even where the Fed's
decisions may adversely affect particular interests (e.g., bond-
holders, when interest rates rise), it acts independently and there is
general agreement that this serves the public interest. Similarly, an
Environmental Commission should be empowered to use scientific data to
set and enforce national environmental policy. For instance an
Environmental Commission would need to set goals and policy for
reducing fossil fuel use to decelerate global warming, to develop
national policies on materials use and recycling, and on energy use and
conservation, and to set population policy. A science-based national
policy on land use planning and transportation is also desperately
needed.

Obviously independent status for EPA wouldn't solve all of the agency's
myriad problems. But if the protection of the environment is to be
given the priority that human survival requires, environmental policy
must be much more independent and grounded much more firmly in science.
Cabinet status won't do the trick and is a diversion from the real
issues.

--by James Handley[1]

AN ILLUSTRATION OF EPA'S LACK OF INDEPENDENCE

As an example of how EPA kowtows to industry, consider the Toxics
Release Inventory (TRI). In 1986, Congress wrote into the Superfund
amendments the "Community Right-to-Know" provisions which required
companies to file annual reports of their releases of toxic substances
into the environment. Senator Stafford, who introduced this provision,
explained its purposes to the Senate including: "The inventories reveal
geographic and industrial patterns of environmental release, which
health officials can correlate with records of disease incidence to
seek out possible relationships."[3]

Dr. John R. Stockwell, a senior physician with the U.S. Public Health
Service and a specialist in preventive medicine, assigned to the
Atlanta office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, did just
that. Dr. Stockwell, who has published many research studies in learned
journals, did a study of the possible relationship of the toxic
releases in the Chattanooga area with disease incidence. [See RHWN
#366.] However, because of EPA's fear of industry reaction, the report
was suppressed. Only after it was requested under the Freedom of
Information Act (FOIA) did the EPA office in Atlanta reluctantly
release it in 1993.

We have recently obtained a copy of an internal EPA memo written by
William Patton, Dr. Stockwell's supervisor, to 10 EPA staff, including
Patton's boss, dated April 14, 1993. It reads (verbatim):

"I just got a phone call from Susan Hazen [head of the TRI program in
Washington] in the Office of [Pollution Prevention] and Toxics. They
are very concerned that the report is going out especially when the new
Administrator [Carol Browner] has just given specific instructions to
them concerning the upcoming TRI data release: 'stay away from linking
human health effects and the TRI data'

"I explained we were using this tool as an inhouse targetting tool and
were forced to release it due to FOIA appeals to Hqs.

"I am holding a short meeting in my office today at 2pm to discuss
possible media questions. Ms Hazen was particularly interested in our
communications strategy on this report. She sounded upset and said they
will have to get to the Administrator about this ASAP.

"Pat Tobin [Acting Regional Administrator] may need a short briefing
before he is called by Browner."

As pointed out in RHWN #366, EPA's reaction to Dr. Stockwell was to try
to get rid of him for doing exactly what was intended under the law.
Meanwhile top EPA officials conspire to subvert the law.

--by William Sanjour[2]

=====

[1] John Handley is Senior Vice President of Local 2050 of the National
Federation of Federal Employees, which represents EPA professionals.
This article originally appeared in INSIDE THE FISHBOWL, December 1993,
published by Local 2050. Handley's phone number is (202) 546-5692.

[2] Bill Sanjour has been employed by EPA for 21 years. His phone is
(202) 260-4502.

[3] A LEGISLATIVE HISTORY OF THE SUPERFUND AMENDMENTS AND
REAUTHORIZATION ACT OF 1986 (PUBLIC LAW 99-499), Committee on
Environment and Public Works, U.S. Senate, October, 1990, Volume 2, p.
1084.

Descriptor terms: epa; corruption; malfeasance; misfeasance;
sustainable development; pesticides; organic farming; rcra; hazardous
waste; basel convention; george bush; carol browner; recycling; sham
recycling; superfund; tacoma, wa; seattle, wa; coeur d'alene valley,
id; bunker hill smelter; silver; lead; air pollution; gulf resources;
jim baca;