Environment agency restored: Ruckelshaus

William Ruckelshaus is a tall man with a penchant for well-timed departures. Having previously left the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Justice Department with his reputation intact - Mr. Ruckelshaus is now resigning the post of EPA administrator for the second time. Having cleaned up the chaos left by his predecessor, Anne Burford, he says it is time to go.

In his chambers, on the top floor of the Environmental Protection Agency's Watergate Mall headquarters, there is an air of mild nostalgia. Aides are mulling over job options, as they plan Mr. Ruckelshaus' last trip as agency chief - a jaunt to London this week, for an international conference.

''My leaving has rekindled this fantasy world I read about,'' complains Ruckelshaus, his voice rising as he strides about his office. ''That I'm mad about our budget, that there's a 30 percent cut (in our funds), that I'm mad at the White House about acid rain.''

''So far as I know no one has even contemplated a 30 percent budget cut,'' he claims. ''(Acid rain) has nothing to do with my leaving - I don't expect to win every struggle.''

In a valedictory interview with the Monitor, Ruckelshaus touched on a wide range of subjects dealing with the agency he calls ''a terribly important institution to this society.''

He claimed, in essence, that EPA administrators must deal with toxic pollutants we don't fully understand, public expectations that are at times unrealistic, and a Congress too often out for its own glory.

''We do not have, in place, a sensible framework of laws that I think can allow us to successfully carry out our mission - which is to protect the environment and human health,'' Ruckelshaus says.

A number of bedrock US environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act are stuck in Congress, waiting to be refurbished and reauthorized, the EPA administrator points out.

In the meantime, the EPA must struggle with a number of unrealistic orders from Congress, claims Ruckelshaus.

A recently passed hazardous waste law, for instance, now requires the agency to move away from land disposal of toxic pollutants. That's a wise move, says Ruckelshaus - but Congress, he claims, has ordered it be done much faster than possible.

''I'm just certain we're not going to meet those deadlines, and therefore the hammer will fall and . . . we'll turn over the management of a lot of these problems to the courts, which I don't think makes any sense,'' he says.

The real tragedy of the Burford years, says Ruckelshaus, is that they confirmed Congress's prejudice that EPA must be led around by the nose or polluters will be running wild in the streets.

This mistrust, he says, deprives EPA of the flexibility it needs to operate ''in the real world.''

This does not mean that Ruckelshaus believes Anne Burford was simply misunderstood. Her reign, he says, inflicted deep damage on EPA.

''Restoring the agency - that's what I came back to do,'' he says.

''The agency was really in trouble, and I feel very good about where it is right now. People are back and doing what they're supposed to be doing. The budget is up.''

''On another level,'' he adds, ''I feel very good about having advanced by maybe half an inch what I think is going to have to be the intellectual underpinning of any significant change in (environmental) laws - namely, the assessment and management of risk.''

Risk management - the practice of weighing costs against benefits, in hopes of getting the maximum safety per dollar spent - is anathema to many environmentalists.

They claim it is budget cutting in disguise. But it was indeed one of Ruckelshaus' special areas of effort at EPA. During his tenure the agency established a number of guidelines to help judge the danger from particular pollutants.

It is difficult, Ruckelshaus admits, to explain to the public a process that essentially decides how much environmental protection we can afford.

''It is only with a constant effort being made by governmnet to explain to people what the difference is between zero risk and acceptable risk that they become comfortable with it,'' he says.

Other subjects touched on by administrator Ruckelshaus in the hour-long interview:

Chemical spill in India. ''A terrible tragedy,'' he says, shaking his head. ''I've been asked several times, 'Can you ensure that can't happen here?' Well, you can't. You can never give people 100 percent assurance, and that's what they want.''

The Indian government has asked the EPA to help determine where the toxic gas may have floated, adds a Ruckleshaus aide.

Toxic dumps. ''One of the most difficult government management problems I've ever seen,'' he says. He complains of a ''disconnect'' between the reality of this tough problem and the ''broad public and political setting in which you have to address it.''

Superfund. The Superfund for cleaning up hazardous waste problems will get more money next year, says Ruckelshaus, from an as-yet-undetermined industry tax. Congress, he says, must still settle exactly what it wants Superfund to do.

''Superfund could conceivably include every toxic release that has ever affected the environment, under the existing definition,'' he says.

''Then you get into victim compensation - as the House has proposed - and the defense budget is going to look small when we're finished.''

Acid rain. ''The issue is less clear today than it was a year ago,'' he claims, saying science is simply discovering more uncertainties.

''If forest damage is shown to be linked to acid rain, that will cause a political solution to occur.''

Ground water. ''Sometimes where ground water gets contaminated, there isn't any solution,'' says Ruckelshaus. ''Sometimes there is.''

Many people think of ''ground water'' as some sort of sloshing underground lake, says the EPA administrator, when in fact such water sometimes ''flows'' about a foot a year. Cleaning such slow-moving stuff, he says, which is often locked in aquifers, can be extremely difficult.

Congress. ''If Congress is worried about the way this agency is going to administer the law, then they ought to do their job, which is (hold oversight hearings),'' says Ruckelshaus.

''So many of those hearings up there are not oversight - they're just hearings in which one congressmen thinks he's got something on EPA, and here's an opportunity to make a name for himself by beating up the agency. Some of it's utter nonsense.''

Environmental groups. ''When they've criticized me it's been unfair, when they've praised me it's been fair,'' says Ruckelshaus, laughing. ''So much of it is a game.''

''I will argue with anyone,'' he concludes, ''that what I am suggesting is in the public interest.''

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