AS the nation gets set to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, the federal agency charged with protecting the environment finds itself under siege -- with few protectors.
A year-long official investigation of the Environmental Protection Agency finds that it lacks a coherent mission, suffers from congressional micro-management, and is inflexible in drafting and enforcing regulations.
''The system is broken,'' concludes a congressionally ordered study of the EPA released this week by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). ''EPA's recent budgets have been driven more by history, inertia, and the crises of the moment than by strategic thinking about how the agency could be most effective,'' it reports.
This nonpartisan group of environmental science and management experts says the EPA should assess environmental risks more realistically and give states and localities more authority to address problems.
''We must make fundamental changes to the way EPA operates,'' says Sen. Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the agency.
The report comes at a time when the Republican-dominated Congress is trying to apply what Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas calls ''a common-sense test'' to environmental policies. In the House, measures strengthening private-property rights, requiring ''cost-benefit'' analysis of regulations, restricting the Endangered Species Act, and easing parts of the Clean Water Act are advancing steadily.
But the effort to unsnarl and rewrite environmental policy is not strictly partisan. The White Houses' EPA administrator, Carol Browner, in charge of nearly 19,000 employees and a $7 billion budget, has complained of ''a complex and unwieldy system of laws and regulations, and increasing conflict and gridlock.''
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on Senator Bond's subcommittee, says, ''I hear from small businesses and local elected officials that they are confronted by a growing number of EPA mandates that just don't make sense.''
In March, President Clinton announced a 25-point regulatory-reform program. Mr. Clinton also recently signed a new law limiting the ''unfunded federal mandates'' (most having to do with pollution control and natural resources protection) that many state and local leaders find oppressive and costly.
Ms. Browner has launched a ''Common Sense Initiative'' to streamline procedures by focusing on whole industries rather than individual pollutants. ''We are bringing everybody to the table -- environmentalists, business, state officials, community leaders -- to examine environmental protection in each key industry from top to bottom,'' she said earlier this month.
Bond calls such efforts ''a step in the right direction.'' But he added Tuesday that ''while we've heard some encouraging statements out of EPA, I don't think they have gotten out of either the mind-set of proscriptive regulation or the statutory framework that drives them in that direction.''
NAPA, established by Congress in 1967, is also calling for greater regulatory control at the state level. ''Those states that are capable and willing to take over functions from the federal government should have full operational responsibility,'' the report states. ''In these cases, EPA should stay out of the way, with no second guessing.''
But NAPA recognizes that ''in those states without the capability or political will to assume responsibility, EPA should continue to exercise intensive oversight.''
The tricky political part, of course, will be deciding when a state or local government is ready to assume responsibility for environmental protection in its jurisdiction.
Regarding business, NAPA suggests moving from sticks to carrots. Firms should be encouraged to exceed federal requirements for cleaner operations. In return, they would be given more flexibility.