Ruckelshaus weighs in on EPA-bashing

Original Reporting | By James Lardner |

Public outrage needed to revitalize regulation

Ultimately, it is public opinion that drives environmental policy, Ruckelshaus said. ”During the Nixon Administration, 16 massive pieces of environmental legislation were passed…Now, Nixon himself did not care about the environment — that was not an issue he ever paid any attention to — and yet, if you look at his record, it’s remarkable, primarily because the public was demanding something be done about it.”


“Point” versus “non-point” pollution

The air and water pollution of the 1970s could be traced to the smokestacks and drainage pipes of a finite set of power plants and other large facilities. Four decades later, some of the biggest pollution problems — like greenhouse gases heating up the planet — are more diffuse and accordingly more difficult to address. Today’s biggest unaddressed sources of water pollution, Ruckelshaus pointed out, are urban, suburban, and agricultural run-off. The point-source problem is largely “under social control,” he said, but not the non-point problem.

“Nixon himself did not care about the environment…and yet if you look at his record, it’s remarkable — primarily because the public was demanding something be done about it.”

The latter is “the storm-water problem and it runs off city streets, farms, and suburban and rural areas and is now 85 percent of the water-pollution problem in the country. When I started at EPA it was 15 percent. The whole thing has completely shifted, and it’s primarily because we’ve brought the big point-source problems under control through a national permit system that spells out what they can discharge and what they can’t.”


Political difficulties in controlling run-off pollution

Run-off is a tougher problem politically as well as technologically, according to Ruckelshaus, because regulation threatens more people, and the “farmer who’s being told that run-off from his land is polluting water” to the detriment of fish or recreation, may not take kindly to the information, especially if “they’re approached like the enemy, not like somebody who’s got a problem and needs to be acquainted with it and needs to understand what’s necessary to correct it. So it really alienates land-owners.”


“Ideological liberals and operational conservatives”

Public opinion on environmental questions is far from a model of consistency, Ruckelshaus said. “Go into any city in the country and say, ‘Do you think the Clean Air Act should be more strictly enforced?’ Eighty percent of the people will say yes. And if you ask that same group of people ‘how about spending 20 minutes every two years getting your automobile tested,’ which demonstrably helps the environment, the air, 80 percent of them will say, ‘Nothing doing.’ They’re sort of ideological liberals and operational conservatives.”


The longer-term politics of attacking environmental regulation

Republicans may live to regret the vehemence of their attacks on environmental regulation, Ruckelshaus said, “because I don’t think the public is any more tolerant today of giant insults on their health or environment than they were forty years ago.” He added that the pendulum may already be “beginning to swing back a little. I’ve noticed that some of these members who were quite outspoken during the campaign and immediately afterward have begun to mute their attacks.”


A better world?

What kind of procedural or cultural changes would Ruckelshaus advocate? In his vision, Congress and the various regulators would talk straight: the agency would say, “This is what we think we need to do to carry out the responsibilities [you have] handed to us, and [if we] ask for 100 and get 80, well all right, here is the 20 percent we think we’re going to have to do without under this budget because we simply can’t — we don’t have the resources.”

“Congress doesn’t take the time…to really understand what the agency’s charge is and how well they’re carrying it out. That’s a time-consuming, politically not very rewarding exercise.”

That step, he added, “is never taken, ever. So that putting off the regulation of a given chemical or a given problem is often blamed on the regulatory agency for not doing its job – the job that it was assigned” but not given the funding to accomplish.

In a better world, he said, the chairman and other key members of the authorizing committee would take the time to learn about the agency’s needs. The chairman might even “go down and testify on the agency’s behalf before the appropriations committee, and say, “Here’s what our committee believes is a reasonable appropriation for this agency to carry out its responsibilities.” (That “rarely or almost never” happens, he added.)

The result would be a considered decision about “the appropriate amount of money and the appropriate priorities that the agency is supposed to pursue… so that at least it’s visible to everybody what it is that you’re actually going to be allowed to spend and what the expectations ought to be as to what return you’ll get for those expenditures, instead of this dance that goes on now.”

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