Economic Climate Threatens Environmental Gains


ENVIRONMENTALISTS are going to have to set priorities and change tactics if they expect to deal successfully with the new threat to environmental protection posed by the recession and growing complaints of overregulation.

That's the view of Thomas Jorling, New York state commissioner of Environmental Conservation. A lawyer and former professor of environmental studies at Williams College, Mr. Jorling has been one of the strongest cheerleaders of the Northeast region's move to adopt the same tough breed of clean-air standards for cars now embraced by California.

The rapid successes of the 1970s and 1980s, he says, have encouraged some environmentalists to "become oblivious to concerns about conditions of the economy. There has to be some recognition that there are limited resources," he says.

Besides setting priorities, environmentalists need to do a better sales job, Jorling says. The case for banning a toxic chemical, for instance, should be argued in terms of costs avoided and long-term economic gains.

In Jorling's view, the new threat to environmental progress, evident in everything from the retreat on federal regulation to new court challenges, is far more serious than in past recessions.

The new tide of lawsuits brought by property owners who say they deserve public compensation if kept by the government from developing their land could wipe out major gains of the last several decades, he says.

He says that New York hopes to get other states to join it in filing a brief on behalf of South Carolina's position in one such case in which the US Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday. The case involves South Carolina's effort to keep the owner of two coastal lots from developing his property. That regulatory move, he says, is in line with a long-established legal principle that government zoning of land to protect it in the public interest is a legitimate exercise of police power and not a "taking"

of the land which would require compensation.

Any change in that position - a shift Jorling considers possible given the current makeup of the Supreme Court - could force public underwriting of all future environmental protection efforts, he says.

"Obviously there's not enough money in the public bank for that," he notes, "so it's a very serious threat."

Other signs of the ailing economy's impact on environmental gains, says Jorling, include President Bush's State of the Union proposal to suspend most new regulations over a 90-day span, the proposed narrowing of the federal definition of wetlands, and the virtual absence of the environment as an issue in the presidential campaign.

Jorling says the US Environmental Protection Agency, where he was an assistant administrator under former President Carter, has been "stymied" by Vice President Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness and has not been a "progressive" leader. Bush's moratorium on new regulations, he says, is likely to be more costly for everyone, including the business community, and could have a "devastating" effect.

The existing timetable of the Clean Air Act of 1990, for instance, could be "gutted" by the move, he says. While the EPA favors holding to the existing schedule mandated by law, the Council on Competitiveness vigorously opposes any such exceptions. Jorling says New York expects to issue its emissions standards on schedule by mid-March and may, with other states and environmentalists, sue the EPA to force it to do its part in supplying rules under the law's current timetable.

In Jorling's view, the states are where most of the environmental action is these days. As a case in point, he cites New York's progress in cleaning up about 600 hazardous-waste sites with the help of $1.2 billion in bond funds.

The EPA has identified about 80 sites nationally for Superfund cleanups, he says, but has been caught up in "endless studies" about which sites should be attacked first and what and how much to do about them. "We've moved way ahead of the federal government in methodology for determining how clean is clean," he says.

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