WASHINGTON — WHEN William Ruckelshaus ran the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he had no idea it would come to be viewed by some Americans as ``the absolute epicenter of ... hell on earth.''
But that's the hard fact he reports after meetings with citizens who live near hazardous-waste sites. He's a member of the National Commission on Superfund, an advisory panel of business and environmental leaders. Speaking last week at the American Enterprise Institute, the man who ran the EPA twice (1970-1973 and 1983-1985) described how a law passed with ``the best of intentions'' could turn so sour. Passed in 1980, it aimed to clean up waste sites around the US.
Says Ruckelshaus: ``But as best I can tell, this law has turned many of the people who live around the sites into among the most alienated Americans that I've seen since the Vietnam war.'' Part of the problem, he says, is a general decline in faith in government. But he blames both Congress and the EPA. The agency failed to see how important it was to work with local people, taking them seriously. If people believed their illnesses were a result of living near a site, the EPA should have worked supportively with them, he says.
``Instead, what we would usually do is send a risk assessment expert to those communities and say, `statistically you can't be sick,''' states Ruckelshaus, now the head of Browning Ferris Industries, a waste-disposal company. Citizens were not allowed enough access to decisionmaking in site remediation, and managers were unprepared to deal with alienation.
``The agency was told [by Congress] to eliminate the risk, to do it quickly, and to involve the citizens affected in as fair a manner as possible,'' Ruckelshaus recalls. But, he adds, the EPA was not given enough time or money to handle the job sensibly, and so the agency initially was ``doomed to failure'' on Superfund before it started. Newer Superfund provisions allow for more public involvement.