Environmental Balance

CONGRESS is in the midst of retooling a regulatory system that has been in place for 25 years, since the passage of legislation forming the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Some adjustment is needed to make the system more effective and fair. But the balance should remain on the side of continued strong curbs on pollution and other practices destructive to the environment. Some of the measures making their way through Congress could have the opposite effect.

Consider the cost-benefit analysis required by both the regulatory reform bill passed by the House and a bill proposed by Sen. Bob Dole. This approach makes economic costs -- to businesses, developers, and individuals -- pivotal in EPA decisionmaking. The EPA would not be allowed to implement regulations if their economic costs were found to outweigh their environmental benefits.

Under current law, the EPA administrator can't consider such costs. That should be changed, but these bills go too far. Environmental and health benefits can't easily be figured in dollars the way a new smokestack scrubber can.

Also, this approach could invite ''creative'' analysis by EPA staffers trying to assign dollar values to environmental protection. The legislation opens the door to endless court battles as well, by increasing opportunities for lawsuits against regulators.

Regulation could virtually grind to a halt -- which might be just what some lawmakers have in mind.

Also questionable is the ''takings'' legislation passed by the House and now before the Senate. It requires federal compensation when regulation diminishes the value of private property by a certain percentage.

This arena should be entered cautiously. Almost every commercial use of land and resources has an impact on the environment, and almost every effort to control that impact imposes some financial burden on owners. If the agency imposing the regulation has to compensate from its budget for that burden, or loss, as proposed in the House legislation, the EPA could go bust. And the principle of ''polluter pays'' could go out the window.

There's room for reasonable compromise here. Excesses on either side should be tempered. That's in line with public sentiment. Surveys indicate most Americans favor less intrusive regulation, but still strongly support a cleaner, more healthful environment.

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