WHAT'S it worth to clean up a poisonous dump or prevent some exotic plant from going extinct? Should a dollar sign be put on the costs and benefits of environmental protection? Should such questions even be asked?
Until recently, issues like these were discussed by a relative handful of experts - mostly economists, with perhaps a few special interests and ideologues chiming in from time to time.
But more recently, lots of people have been asking such questions as lawmakers and regulators seek to balance environmental protection and economic well-being.
Legislation to elevate the Environmental Protection Agency to Cabinet status is held up in the House of Representatives over the issue. Reauthorization of such important laws as the ``Superfund'' for toxic-waste cleanup and the Endangered Species Act are at stake.
And the mounting cost of environmental regulation is an important part of the growing resistance to ``unfunded federal mandates'' by state, county, and local officials.
The public, too, is becoming keenly interested. In January, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis reported the results of a public opinion survey.
While 66 percent of those 1,000 Americans interviewed agreed: ``The government is not doing enough to protect people from environmental pollution,'' 83 percent said officials should use risk analysis to identify the most serious environmental problems, and a whopping 94 percent said Uncle Sam should inform the public of the costs and benefits of any new environmental regulation.
Such regulation is estimated to cost about $150 billion a year, with trends pointing toward $185 billion annually by the end of the decade. Eight of the top 10 unfunded federal mandates - United States regulations that other levels of government must pay for - cited by the US Conference of Mayors are environmental.
Over the next five years, according to the mayors' organization, the 1,050 US cities with populations over 30,000 will pay a total of $29.3 billion to comply with the Clean Water Act, $8.6 billion for the Safe Drinking Water Act, $3.7 billion on Clean Air Act compliance, and $5.5 billion on solid-waste disposal ordered by Washington.
``This country is literally choking in regulation, and somewhere we must consider the manner in which we look at all of these regulations. We prioritize the mission of our Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], and we decide what is the cost, what is the risk, and what is the benefit,'' says Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida.
Mr. Mica, along with his Florida colleague Rep. Karen Thurman (D), authored a controversial amendment to a bill that would create a ``Department of Environmental Protection.'' That amendment would require the more powerful Cabinet-level version of the EPA to conduct risk assessment and cost-benefit analyses before implementing new regulations. It's virtually the same amendment passed overwhelmingly last year by the Senate, as part of its EPA-elevating bill.
But it brought things to a halt last month in the House, where the Rules Committee had decided that the amendment dealt with broad environmental policy beyond the elevation question at hand. The amendment was declared out of order and was struck from floor debate. That, in turn, led the full House, by a 227-191 margin, to repudiate the rule against the amendment.
In essence, this means most House members think the issues of risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis of environmental regulations ought to be debated, despite the opposition of the Clinton administration and many environmental groups.
EPA administrator Carol Browner and other administration officials say they already weigh costs and benefits in deciding new regulations, and that a law mandating such analyses would be costly. The EPA figures such studies would cost about $30 million a year.
``[The] EPA did a thousand risk assessments last year, over 60 cost-benefit analyses,'' Ms. Browner told the Associated Press. ``These are tools we use right now.''
But others wonder whether those are being used properly. Earlier this year, the National Research Council - part of the National Academy of Sciences - reported that the EPA needs to more clearly define the methods and assumptions it uses to estimate health risks.
A recent report by the research organization Resources for the Future concludes that while the EPA often does weigh the costs and benefits of regulations, the agency ``has been willing to impose substantial costs on consumers and firms in order to save a life.''
IN regulating pesticides and toxic air pollutants, for example, ``The agency's implicit valuation of a cancer case avoided was in excess of $45 million,'' Resources for the Future reported. While the value of a life is something economists - or anyone, for that matter - find difficult to quantify in dollars, the report observed: ``This value seems high considering that the value of life implicit in workers' occupational choices is about $5 million.''
Many organizations have lined up in support of the amendment authored by Mica and Ms. Thurman. Among them: the National Governors Association, the US Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National League of Cities, and the National Federation of Independent Business.
Opposed are most environmental groups, the Clinton administration, and a number of influential lawmakers, including Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, who chairs the House health and environment subcommittee.
The battle over the future of the EPA and its power to impose costly regulations is, thus, far from over.