Something is wrong at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In recent years, there have been congressional investigations into political collusion with chemical industry forces, outcry about the quiet closure of EPA libraries and a steady stream of high-level agency officials filing out the door in protest. All of this has damaged the credibility of the agency, says Jeff Ruch, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
“I could do a catalog of everything from global warming to prescription drugs in the water to inadequate toxic clean up and you could go on and on,” Ruch says, in reference to the EPA’s enforcement failures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Bush administration’s challenges to the Clean Air Act. The current EPA has established smog standards that fall short of scientific recommendations, attempted to ease restrictions on industrial pollution and tap-danced around its ability to regulate greenhouse gases. In case after case, federal courts have sided with environmentalists and lawmakers against Bush’s EPA.
“What has been most remarkable,” says Vickie Patton, the deputy general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, “is the extent to which the judiciary has provided a very unmistakable check on the EPA’s policies, [policies] that have really strained the nation’s clean air laws in ways that Congress never intended.”
Take the mercury emissions case. Mercury is a persistent neurotoxin that can find its way from fish to humans, where it can cause myriad health problems. Regulations under the Clean Air Act mandated stringent controls—some would have reduced mercury emissions by 90%. In 2005, the EPA passed a regulation that would require coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions by only 70% and use a cap-and-trade system that would allow cleaner plants to trade unused emissions.
“These rules came right out of the White House,” says Dr. Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). She says that EPA scientists were told to come up with the data to justify such a change in policy. “Their own inspector general at the EPA found that EPA scientists were pressured to change their analyses and their findings to agree with a predetermined value for a national cap on mercury emissions.”
A federal court ruled in February that the new rules don’t go as far they should to protect the public from mercury.
Grifo says this is an egregious example, but one that is hardly unique in Bush’s EPA. There have been tales of suppressed research; of reports kept in draft form so they don’t have to be released to the public; and of political retaliation for those who stray off message.
Mary Gade, a lifelong Republican, was, until May, the Midwestern regional administrator of the EPA. She told the Chicago Tribune that she was forced to resign after contentious negotiations with Dow Chemical about cleaning up a dioxin-contaminated site near the company’s Michigan headquarters. Later, a federal court mandated cleanup, but Gade was long gone.
Grifo says that for years the UCS has been hearing anecdotes about scientific tampering and marginalization at the agency, so they sent EPA scientists a questionnaire to “take the pulse of the agency.” The results were released earlier this year—and it’s a picture of an EPA, she says, that is coming down against science, against enforcement and, essentially, against itself.
Of the nearly 1,600 respondents, over half of them cited at least one instance of political interference in their work over the last five years. Some is to be expected. PEER, which Ruch describes as “a shelter for battered staff,” has been fielding complaints from whistleblower public employees at agencies like the EPA and the Department of the Interior for more than a decade. But not like this, Ruch says.
“If you talk to people who work for the EPA, they’ll tell you they’ve never seen it so bad,” he says.
When President Richard Nixon created the EPA in 1970, he established its mission: “to protect human health and the environment.” Grifo says the EPA was designed to be an agency that would establish its guidelines based on the best available science.
But she says there is a systemic problem. “The problem is with the centralization of decision making,” says Grifo. In other words, the agency is only as good as its administrator.
When President George W. Bush came to office, he chose Christine Todd Whitman to head the agency. She was the Republican governor of New Jersey, a state not known for its strong environmental record. She was a moderate, though, and found herself at odds with the administration on issues like climate change policy. Whitman resigned in 2003, citing family concerns. But in 2005, she published a memoir suggesting that meddling by former Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney played a part. Utah Governor Michael Leavitt followed Whitman but was hardly a voice of dissent during his tenure.
When Stephen Johnson was appointed administrator in 2005, many in the agency were excited, says Ruch. Johnson, at least, had a long career within the EPA. “He had a scientific background,” Ruch says. “They thought that he could restore self-respect to the agency.”
But these days Johnson has been a regular visitor to congressional oversight committees as more evidence of industry interference comes out on issues ranging from chemical regulations to blocking California’s attempts to set its own, stronger vehicle emissions guidelines. During a May congressional hearing on White House influence at the agency, Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) called Johnson “essentially a figurehead.” On July 29, three senators called for Johnson to resign for supporting special interests. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) told reporters that Johnson “has become a secretive and dangerous ally of polluters.”
The Environmental Fallout
All of this has had huge implications on the ground. Patton suggests that the reluctance of the federal system to institute proper regulations has led states like California and Massachusetts to redouble their own environmental standards. But not all states are so proactive.
John Blair is the director of Valley Watch, a group that monitors air and water pollution in the lower Ohio River Valley region, which has a large concentration of coal-fired power plants. He says that dealing with state environmental agencies in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky is complicated by rushed permitting procedures and difficulty obtaining public records.
These days, he goes straight to the source. “I’ve been seeking to deal with companies on an economic basis more than anything else,” Blair says. He’s busy persuading power companies not to build in the Valley, emphasizing prohibitive costs.
And the EPA’s reluctance to regulate greenhouse gases and develop a comprehensive climate change policy is slowing environmental growth worldwide. Deborah Sel
igsohn, China director from the World Resource Institute, says that Chinese environmental bodies follow the lead of the U.S. on standards for air and water quality.
“Were the U.S. to act, China will feel there is a commitment to actually solving the problem and be more interested in moving to the next level,” she writes in an e-mail. “[But], the fact is, China has a national climate change policy today. It is the U.S. that doesn”t.”
Grifo is focused on moving forward. “It’s not that the EPA is fatally flawed,” she says. “It’s more like it has fallen and skinned its knee.”
Says Ruch: “If you brought in somebody that believed in the mission and surrounded himself with others that believed in the mission, it would be like water in the desert. The desert flowers would bloom.”
The EPA has been through rough patches before. During the Reagan administration, Anne Gorsuch ran the EPA into the ground with large budget cuts in both research and enforcement. When she resigned amid scandal, Reagan brought back William Ruckelshaus, known as “The Enforcer,” who had been the EPA’s inaugural administrator. Upon his return, Ruckelshaus wrote a memo to the staff telling them to operate as if they were in a fishbowl. Only then, he said, could the EPA regain the public trust.