THE United States government is one of America's worst polluters. An Energy Department plant in Ohio blew tons of radioactive dust into the air - without telling its neighbors - and decided that stopping the pollution would be too expensive. The General Accounting Office finds federal facilities are twice as likely as their commercial counterparts to violate the Clean Water Act's priority requirements. In February, a federal judge handed down a decision labeling an Army base in Colorado ``the worst hazardous and toxic waste site in America.'' Decades of inattention have left the Energy and Defense Departments an environmental bill now estimated at $100 billion to $150 billion.
In 1986, the Pentagon knew it had about 700 hazardous waste sites to contend with. Within a year that figure more than doubled. Now it has more than tripled.
During his 1988 campaign, President Bush observed that ``some of the worst offenders are our own federal facilities.'' He promised to insist that government installations ``meet or exceed'' environmental standards. But federal agencies fall victim to their large size and competing priorities. While agencies have staff environmentalists, many line managers and operators have yet to absorb an environmental ethic into their working culture.
When the Environmental Protection Agency finds lax compliance at a private company, usually it asks the Justice Department to sue the polluters. But the Justice Department feels it and the EPA cannot take other federal agencies to court, because the Constitution empowers only the president to resolve disputes among subordinates. Right or wrong, a courtroom test of the theory would mean years of delay for the real goal, environmental cleanup.
With the EPA disarmed, those pressuring for the cleanup of federal installations have sought other outlets. Some state governments and citizen groups have become active enforcers against federal agencies. This helps, but there are problems. Federal law carves out exceptions where states and private citizens cannot sue federal agencies. And each state or local group usually wants its own local pollution corrected first. With everyone enforcing independently, there is little coordination of where to concentrate attention. Federal agencies sometimes feel they must respond where the greatest pressure is brought against them, not where the most serious problems are.
A recent innovation is federal criminal prosecution of individual federal employees. Three Army employees were convicted of environmental felonies earlier this year. Though the Justice Department says this is constitutionally allowed, criminal charges wreck the lives of civil servants when the real culprit is management's failure to pay attention to environmental laws. If it were constitutional, straightforward federal enforcement against federal agencies would be better.
Apparently with this in mind, in 1978 President Carter signed an executive order authorizing the EPA to refer enforcement actions to the federal Office of Management and Budget. While Jimmy Carter had the right idea - a federal forum to hear charges against federal agencies - he picked the wrong forum. OMB's instincts are to save money, not spend it, and only disputes that cost money rise to the top. OMB's budgeteers cannot judge the complicated scientific and legal questions raised. In 1984, OMB actually did resolve one environmental dispute between agencies. But the dispute was delayed for months, and OMB finally acted only when presidential candidate Walter Mondale announced he would visit the polluted installation a few days before the election.
President Bush should make the Council on Environmental Quality, not OMB, the ``court'' EPA can turn to. And EPA should refer cases to the council at least as readily as it refers cases to court. Like OMB, the council is part of the President's staff. But unlike OMB, it focuses on the environment, not money. The council is a three-member commission appointed with Senate confirmation that mediates environmental disputes and supervises federal agencies' procedures for writing environmental-impact statements.
The council will need more clout, though. In 1987, President Reagan made the Carter executive order unenforceable in court. President Bush should make the council's decisions enforceable by any concerned citizen.
The council and EPA will also need active White House support, and existing enforcement tools will still be needed, too. Even then, no dose of enforcement alone will achieve all the cleanup needed. Eventually, that will take painful amounts of money, involving both Congress and the President. But an environmentally sensitive federal process is needed now.