EPA at 15: it's getting harder to gauge success against pollution

The Environmental Protection Agency, charged with fashioning and enforcing the nation's antipollution regulations, is publicizing its accomplishments as it celebrates its 15th birthday this week. But the EPA's critics counter with a barrage of complaints, many of which have dogged the agency in one form or another throughout the past five years.

In fact, to listen to the two sides, one might have a hard time believing that they are talking about the same agency. That underscores a simple but pivotal reality in the ongoing battle to protect the environment: As efforts to control pollution become more sophisticated and complex, an absolute measure of success becomes less certain.

Among the EPA's accomplishments, as the agency tells it:

Air pollution from vehicles has been reduced by 46 percent for hydrocarbons, 34 percent for carbon monoxide, and 75 percent for lead since 1970. EPA claims significant decreases in the risks to human health from air pollution as a result.

Some 300,000 pounds of toxic pollutants are being removed each year from water discharges by the iron and steel industry. Oil spills, once common in the 1960s and early '70s, are now rare events. Rivers from coast to coast that were nearly devoid of life now teem with fish. Lake Erie, once so laden with pollutants that a river feeding into it caught on fire in 1969, has been revived.

The agency has reviewed thousands of federal projects and recommended measures to limit environmental damage from highways, dams, energy projects, military installations, and nuclear-waste disposal plans.

``EPA's plate is very full right now,'' says agency administrator Lee M. Thomas of the enormous array of environmental programs the EPA oversees. That plate is being heaped higher, too, as regulation of genetically engineered pesticides is added to the EPA's responsibilities and rapidly improving science allows for the detection and, perhaps, regulation of ever more minute quantities of pollutants. Even so, Mr. Thomas says, because of the experience that the EPA has accumulated over the past 15 years, ` `I think we are ready to go forward.''

Critics say otherwise. ``They are not in charge. They do not have the resources by their own actions to get the work done, and they are more interested in cosmetics than anything,'' Rep. James J. Florio (D) of New Jersey says of the EPA's administration. ``I'm sure Lee Thomas would like to be doing a good job. . . .''

Critics such as Representative Florio charge that too often the EPA's programs are jettisoned because of opposition from the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for shaping the President's proposed federal budget each year. Critics cite several examples of OMB influence in EPA affairs as evidence of the EPA's lack of control over its own policies.

Several EPA initiatives bearing the stamp of President Reagan's New Federalism have irritated lawmakers and observers across the country. Recently, the agency unveiled strategies to control toxic gases emitted from chemical plants. Those plans, however, put the onus of regulation and enforcement on state and local governments.

The plans also have drawn jeers and lawsuits from environmentalists, who argue that EPA has failed to live up to the spirit of the Clean Air Act. The act, among other things, requires EPA to establish ``an ample margin of safety'' for hazardous air pollutants.

In addition, many observers say the agency falls short in enforcing environmental laws and meeting congressionally mandated deadlines for pollution cleanup. The issue of deadlines, to which the EPA is as opposed as the agency's critics are insistent, has stymied efforts to renew the Clean Air Act for the past five years and is fueling the debate over the renewal of the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup law.

Critics also charge that the agency is grossly underfunded, again under orders from a cost-conscious OMB. Indeed, while EPA's workload has doubled over the last decade, analysts note that after adjusting for inflation, the agency's fiscal 1986 operating budget of $1.49 billion is now roughly equivalent to 1975's level. And Congress has had to force additional funding for other programs on an EPA reluctant to receive it.

Thomas admits the agency has suffered a credibility problem, traced back to the administration of Anne Burford, whose tenure at the EPA was marked by mass resignations and several congressional investigations.

But he insists that he is working on the credibility issue. The EPA has become more vigilant in ensuring its regulations are followed, he says. Whatever the EPA's shortcomings, he adds, the agency has made significant progress in understanding what environmentalists call ``new wave'' problems, such as acid rain and non-point-source pollution, including pesticide runoff from farms.

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