Keeping EPA on Course

TWENTY-TWO years ago, in the Nixon administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established. Its debut was already long overdue.

Living on a beautiful, bountiful continent, Americans were taking too much for granted, as though these resources were perpetually renewable. Fortunately, enough people responded to the warnings of the far-sighted. New preservation and renewal programs, private and governmental, were established.

By 1970 it was clear that nothing less than a national effort at the federal level was needed. The fact that the EPA was established when a Republican president was in the White House provided proof that more than "flower children" were involved in this new environmental movement.

After 20 years, United States environmental policy stands on firmer ground. But not firm enough, according to a report issued earlier this week in Washington by the Center for Resource Economics.

While Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt promises bold initiatives with projects like saving the Florida Everglades and safeguarding public lands in the West, the president's budget features an 8-percent cut in the fiscal 1994 EPA budget - almost $1.5 billion, or 22 percent below the amount said to be needed to fulfill its statutory obligations.

The Center for Resource Economics report advocates $1.47 billion more for the EPA in fiscal 1994, which begins Oct. 1, 1993. This would be a 13-percent increase over the current budget for the agency. The report also urges an end to political interference by forces outside the EPA.

The tenor of the Congress and the president is to cut something from most departments and programs to help close the government's budget deficit. We certainly support responsible federal budgets. Yet while a 13-percent increase in the agency's budget when other important programs are being cut is unrealistic, neither should the agency's budget get thrown into fiscal reverse.

As President Clinton and Congress continue to work on the budget, they should restore the EPA's budget line at least to a level equal to last year's figure. If they choose not to, members of Congress especially should think twice about allowing subsequent oversight hearings to become bash-the-EPA sessions.

If the agency continues to have trouble meeting its obligations, lawmakers themselves will carry a significant share of the blame.

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